|Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay drives a sedan in Thimphu on Monday. Picture courtesy: Kuensel
Thimphu, June 16: Those in the audience were elected and nominated representatives of a fledgling democracy but when Narendra Modi rose to address the joint session of the parliament in Bhutan this morning, he probably had the whole of South Asia in mind as he stressed the need for a stronger India for the benefit of the entire region.
“The entire region, especially the Saarc countries, would benefit if India is prosperous. Only a strong, prosperous India can help alleviate the problems that its neighbours face,” said Modi as lawmakers in Bhutan listened in rapt attention.
If read in the backdrop of what Modi had said last night during his speech at a banquet hosted by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, today’s comments are a continuation of his foreign policy theme that India would lead the region from the front.
Modi had confessed last night how unpleasant neighbours were coming in the way of “peaceful” living despite the possession of “every kind of happiness, peace and wealth”.
Picking up from where he left off yesterday, the crux of his speech today was his resolve to make India stronger, which also was the cornerstone of his campaign in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, in which he got a sweeping mandate.
The recently held Indian elections did feature in his speech as he took care to explain how the people of India had voted for “good governance and development”.
Earlier, he congratulated the Bhutanese people for making a smooth transition to democracy — the Himalayan state started its democratic journey in 2008 — describing it as a sign of “maturity and awareness” of the people.
“Both India and Bhutan have seen transitions of power, but the relationship has remained strong…. We have opened our hearts to each other. Leaderships may change, but these open hearts will not close,” said the Indian Prime Minister.
Such was the interest in Modi’s speech — broadcast live on national television and radio — that people on the move were listening to it over radio.
Although two slips that Modi made during his speech — he once referred to Bhutan as Nepal and another time as Ladakh — were noticed and drew some laughter later, no one seemed to be complaining. In fact, Bhutanese MPs broke into applause, departing from the custom of not clapping that is usually done here to ward off evil spirits.
Modi made an extempore speech in Hindi. Although there was an official translator, some MPs said that they had missed some points as the translator apparently could not understand Modi’s “shhudh” Hindi.
Cutting across political lines — Bhutan has two major parties, the ruling PDP and the Opposition DPT — the speech was welcomed as it promised a continuation of Delhi’s support for the government in Thimphu.
“The fact that he stressed continuity of the relationship made all of us happy,” said Pema Gyamtsho, president of the DPT and the leader of the Opposition in the parliament.
Although no one from the Indian or Bhutanese side wanted to speak on the discussions on security-related issues, a joint statement said that the two sides “expressed satisfaction with the cooperation between the two countries related to their mutual security”.
“They agreed to continue with their close coordination and cooperation with each other on issues relating to their national interests, and not allow each other’s territory to be used for interests inimical to the other,” the statement added.
This assurance must have pleased the Indian establishment as keeping the 605km border with Bhutan free of any trouble has been one of the priorities of New Delhi.
Some Bhutanese officials said during off-the-record conversations that they had very little knowledge of Modi, as the foundation of the India-Bhutan friendship was primarily the relationship between the royal family and the Nehru-Gandhi family. India’s ties with Bhutan started with Jawaharlal Nehru’s first visit to the Himalayan state in 1958.
“We started tracking Modi from his election campaign…. I won’t say that we had any apprehensions about him but I must admit that he was an unknown quantity for us,” said an official.
The two-day visit by the Indian Prime Minister was the “reassurance” that Bhutan was looking for, he added.
That the Bhutanese establishment was “reassured” had been evident from the manner in which both the monarchic and democratic institutions bid him a traditional farewell after his engagements in Thimphu ended and he headed for Paro International Airport.
At a news conference today, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said that the trip was “successful and satisfying”.
“It reinforced and strengthened the India-Bhutan relationship… During the two days, our Prime Minister interacted with the executive, legislative and the judiciary. He also had great interaction with the K4 and K5,” she added.
By K5, she was referring to His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king, while K4 meant the present king’s father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
There is little doubt that the Indian Prime Minister left satisfied as the entire Bhutanese establishment was on the same page with him.
“Everyone in Bhutan will agree that a stronger and prosperous India will bode well for our country as the benefits will trickle down to us,” said Tenzing Lamsang, editor of The Bhutanese, a prominent English daily in Bhutan.
The Indian foreign policy establishment should also be happy as the renewal of friendship came at a time China has been aggressively wooing Bhutan to forge diplomatic relations.
The question is whether Modi can get the other countries on board.
“The pending bilateral issues with the other Saarc nations are different and very complex.… It remains to be seen how he deals with the expectations of Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and resolves the disputes with Pakistan and China,” said an analyst.