It is by now clear that it is difficult to anticipate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s moves. He has a genuine felicity for spectacle and surprise. He ran an imaginative campaign for months and has taken several striking steps in the few days he has been in power.
His decision to make Bhutan the first country he visits as prime minister was unexpected and must count as an astute piece of diplomacy. It is hard to think of an Indian leader who has turned his attention to Bhutan so early in his tenure. And rightly so. A symbolic first prime ministerial visit is due recognition for a small nation that has chosen to remain friendly with New Delhi in a neighbourhood which remains ambivalent about India’s rise and intentions.
The decision confirms his government’s interest in strengthening links with the South Asian neighbourhood, as demonstrated by the invite to Saarc heads of government and state for the government’s swearing-in ceremony. Many realise that India’s prosperity is inevitably tied to bilateral harmony and greater economic linkages with its neighbours. That agenda was in disarray during the UPA rule through stalled agreements with Bangladesh, differences with Sri Lanka over autonomy to Tamils, poorly-coordinated responses to the crisis in the Maldives and the drift in relations with Nepal. There were blips in relations with Thimphu as well. Indian subsides for cooking gas and kerosene in Bhutan were briefly suspended last year causing prices to soar and stoke tempers in the country. Mr Modi will be keen to move on and tap the vast potential of close ties. India and Bhutan recently agreed to together build four hydropower projects in the mountain nation that would generate 2,120 MW.
As the conscious leader of an emerging Asian power, he has avoided the temptation to head to a Western capital first. Picking Bhutan also entails some deft signalling to China. Mr Modi could have chosen to visit Japan, which clearly sees close ties with India as a counter to Beijing. But Mr Modi — who is keen on strengthening economic links with China — is clearly alert to reactions in Beijing were Tokyo to be his first port of call. Equally, by heading to Thimphu, Mr Modi conveys to China that just as he is alert to dynamics in its neighbourhood, Beijing too must be sensitive about Delhi’s sphere of influence.
India did not take kindly to contact between Beijing and Thimphu during the term of Bhutan’s previous prime minister. Mr Modi’s visit to Bhutan is a much-needed sign that India will get its act together in its backyard, and will not let Thimphu slide into China’s sphere of influence, in a way that it allowed Nepal to.