There may be some short-term satisfaction in New Delhi that the Bhutanese general elections have gone in the direction that the Indian government would like. However, the tensions between India and the outgoing Bhutanese government are evidence that bilateral relations between the two countries need to be recalibrated. The previous government led by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley had proved to have an independent streak in foreign policy that went down poorly with an India used to having its way in Thimphu. While the Indian government has repeatedly insisted that the lapsing of the fuel subsidies it provided for Bhutan had nothing to do with the election schedule, it is universally perceived as a crude Indian attempt to influence the elections. It also became the number one campaign issue and helped Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Demo-cratic Party to, at least, increase the margin of its electoral victory.
India must develop a more flexible and a less viceregal attitude towards Bhutan, a country that still remains India’s closest and most reliable friend. New Delhi would be mistaken to believe the elections are a sign that it can go back to treating Bhutan in a manner that the British Raj used to treat its princely states. Mr Thinley’s liking for independent foreign policy initiatives, including seeking diplomatic recognition from various countries, and most troublingly, his parleys with the Chinese government, were not simply a consequence of his personal whims. They reflected a new, more globally integrated and nationalist Bhutan that is far removed from the hermit kingdom that was a favourite of National Geographic magazine. The unwillingness of Bhutan to build more hydroelectric dams for India’s power requirements given the increasingly large number of people such projects are displacing is also a sign of how things have changed.
If New Delhi must interject itself so forcefully into the politics of even this country, then its broader plans to stabilise its own neighbourhood relations are exposed as little more than pretence. It also makes sense that Thimphu develops a working relationship with China. Thimphu must maintain the basic prerequisite of the relationship: namely, that its foreign policy actions should be done with prior consultation with New Delhi. However, this is meaningless if India adheres to positions that are based in a reality that is 20 years out-of-date and is unreasonably inflexible about China and similar issues.