Narendra Modi and his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay greet each other at Paro airport. (AFP)
Thimphu, June 15: Narendra Modi today made a confession about unpleasant neighbours that hardly any other Indian Prime Minister is known to have made on a foreign visit.
“Kabhi kabhaar aisa padosi mil jata hai ki apke paas har prakar kay sukh shanti vaibhav hone key baad bhi aap chain say jee nahi sakte (At times you get such neighbours that even after possessing every kind of happiness, peace and wealth, you cannot live in peace),” Modi said on his first overseas trip as Prime Minister.
His comment came during a speech at a banquet hosted by the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay, in capital Thimphu this evening. Hindi is well understood in Bhutan.
As Modi did not specify which neighbour or neighbours he was talking about, his remarks left room for interpretation.
Some Indian officials speculated that he was referring to China, which is Bhutan’s neighbour too and takes a strategic interest in the tiny Himalayan nation.
Bhutan’s northwest is adjacent to the Chumbi Valley — a tri-junction of the Bhutan, India and China borders that is of immense geo-strategic importance to China as it adjoins both Sikkim and Tibet.
The area is important for India too as it is close to the narrow “Chicken’s Neck” corridor, the sole link between the Indian mainland and the Northeast.
Some Indian officials said Modi may have been referring to Pakistan, with which India has had a history of boundary conflicts, resulting in full-fledged wars and regular border skirmishes.
“There may be speculation about which nation or nations the Prime Minister was talking about but there is little doubt that he was making an honest statement,” said a senior Indian official accompanying Modi.
The official said: “India has had several problems with some of its neighbours in South Asia. An important aspect of Modi’s foreign policy is to settle the disputes and he made a beginning by inviting all the Saarc countries to his swearing-in.”
The official said Modi’s statement was significant because it suggested that Bhutan, wedged between the two giants — India and China — had remained a true friend of India.
“Hum jaante hain ki padosiyon kay faidey kya hote hain aur padosiyon ki pareshani kya hoti hai (We know both the advantages and hassles of having neighbours),” Modi said at the banquet.
“Bhutan jab apne happiness kay quotient ka mulyankan karta hai toh usme Bharat jaisa dost, mahatvapurn dost ka maapdand hai (When Bhutan calculates its happiness quotient, the friendship with India is also considered an important yardstick),” the Prime Minister added.
He seemed to be alluding to the concept of Gross National Happiness, a term coined by Bhutan’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s. It implies that the notion of progress should give equal importance to the non-economic aspects of well-being.
Sources in the Indian establishment said that Modi’s comments at the banquet were not part of a prepared text.
Modi’s plane had landed in Bhutan a little before noon. A motorcade then took him to Thimphu, around 50km from the airport. People flanked the winding roads to give him a rousing welcome.
“There is little doubt that he liked the reception he got after landing in Bhutan,” the Indian official said.
The monarchy and the democratically elected government took up from where popular enthusiasm had left off.
Modi received a guard of honour at Tashichhodzong, a structure that dates back to the 16th century. The building (“tashi” means good, “chho” means religious and “dzong” means a fort) houses the offices of the king and the finance and home ministries besides serving as the residence of the country’s religious head, Je Khenpo.
Modi then met King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck for around an hour though the meeting was scheduled to last about 30 minutes. A meeting with the Bhutan Prime Minister followed.
“The primary focus of both meetings was extensive development cooperation between the two countries and measures to enhance economic ties,” an Indian official said.
He said Modi thanked the Bhutanese leadership for the warm welcome and appreciated their personal efforts to ensure the success of his first foreign trip. The Indian Prime Minister described the bilateral ties as “B2B” (Bharat to Bhutan) relations.
Modi promised to double Indian scholarships for Bhutanese students and said New Delhi would help Bhutan set up a digital library.
Tomorrow, Modi will address a joint session of the Bhutanese parliament and then lay the foundation stone for the Kholongchhu hydropower project.
Hydropower is the cornerstone of Indo-Bhutanese economic cooperation. The hydel power projects in Bhutan, set up with Indian investment and technological support, provide clean and green energy to India in exchange for rupees, the currency that Bhutan uses to pay for its imports.
A Bhutanese scholar detected a symbolism in the extremes of weather Thimphu witnessed on the day of Modi’s arrival — a bright sunny morning, an overcast afternoon with heavy rain and then a spotless and starry evening sky.
“We were struck by the dazzling sunshine that accompanied Modi’s arrival, as a bright sky heralds an auspicious beginning in Bhutanese symbolism,” said Dasho Karma Ura of the Centre for Bhutan Studies.
“Later, Thimphu had refreshing showers. The night sky was spotless with blue stars. PM Modi is not only a man for all seasons but a man with all four seasons.”