There will be no shift in Bhutan’s foreign policy with regard to India as the two countries share an unshakable bond of friendship, the prime minister-elect of the Himalayan nation has said at a time when there are whispers of Thimpu’s growing closeness to Beijing.
In an emailed interview to the Hindustan Times on Wednesday — first to an Indian media house after his party’s stunning victory in Bhutan elections on July 13 — Tshering Tobgay said there was nothing to worry about bilateral ties and he was “confident that India will find a way to resume the subsidies soon”. Excerpts:
Q) Congratulations for your momentous victory. Was this an expected outcome when you were running the campaign and what you think clinched the overwhelming mandate for you?
Ans: Thank you very much. My party, the People's Democratic Party, was both overjoyed and humbled by the overwhelming support that we received from the people of Bhutan. We were cautiously optimistic during the campaign, but the momentum generated by an anti-incumbency mood in the electorate saw us comfortably through.
Q) What are your immediate priorities as the leader of Bhutan, which is in the throes of change and you will have to make a lot of effort at reviving the economy?
Ans: My immediate priorities are firstly, to bring all our people together after what was a fiercely-contested election. We need to re-group as Bhutanese, and together tackle serious challenges that lie before us. We will indeed have to devote urgent attention to reviving our economy. On the foreign policy front, my priority is to visit India as soon as possible. As our closest friend, I would like to reassure the government and people of India that the new government formed by my party intends to work closely with them to further strengthen the excellent relations that our two countries enjoy.
Q) There were many commentaries that India was meddling in the domestic political process in Bhutan. Your comments?
Ans: India has never interfered in our domestic political process, and, as our closest friend and ally, we have no reason to believe that they ever will. Bhutan and India interact closely in a multitude of fronts -- economic, social, cultural or political -- and as such, certain issues that arose in the recent past have misled some to speculate that there may have been meddling. But such speculations have since proven to be unsubstantiated and have been laid to rest.
Q) Was the former prime minister getting too close to China for India's comfort and do you think that upset made Delhi as Bhutan in many ways is New Delhi's closest friend?
Ans: I do not believe this to be the case. India and Bhutan share an unshakable bond of friendship built on the foundation of shared interests, trust and goodwill. Where misunderstandings have emerged, these have always been cleared in a way that good friends iron out differences. I believe that India has absolutely no cause for concern about any shift in our foreign policy - one that has served Bhutan exceedingly well over the last half-century.
Q) The cutting of subsidy by India was a major issue in the poll campaign? Was India getting into punitive action with Bhutan?
Ans: There have been recent clarifications on this issue by the Government of India through their ambassador to Bhutan which clearly dispel all speculation that cutting of subsidies was a punitive measure. It was more a result of technicalities. Our 10th Five-Year Plan period ended on June 30 and with it lapsed the subsidies. Our 11th five-year plan will only commence after our new government is formed and endorses it. I am, however, confident that the Government of India will find a way to resume the subsidies even before that time.
Q) How would like to characterise the India-Bhutan ties under your stewardship?
Ans: Our relations with India have been carefully nurtured over the decades by our enlightened and farsighted Kings. I would like to build on the firm foundation of India-Bhutan relations laid by our Kings and the leaders of India. I wish to humbly do my part in further strengthening our ties. I would, therefore, like our ties to be characterised as one between the closest of friends, and our relations scaling ever-greater heights.
Q) Most countries in the region do have China as a major trading partner even if they have political and other issues with Beijing? Do you think Bhutan can keep away from this, considering China as a neigbbour has such economic clout, if nothing else?
Ans: Given our landlocked geography with the high Himalayas separating Bhutan from China, our natural trade route opens to India in the south. In view of the favourable free-trade agreement we have with India, and the absence of a seaport, I expect that for the conceivable future our largest and most important trading partner will continue to be India.
Q) You didn't devote much space in your manifesto on foreign policy. You stated that your government will foster good relations with the neighbouring Indian states and will follow a "cautious" approach on international approach? What does it convey?
Ans: It conveys simply to the Bhutanese people that our government will continue to follow the foreign policies put in place by our wise monarchs. It has served us exceedingly well over the last half-century and we believe it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Q) There are views in India that the model of financial assistance to Bhutan should change, for example instead of India giving money directly for capital-intensive project s like hydro-power, there are arguments that India should help you raise money from market? Do you agree to such shift in the way assistance is given to you?
Ans: I will reserve comments on the modalities of assistance till after we have formed the government. I will just say here that the assistance received from the Government of India has been immensely beneficial to the people of Bhutan for which we are very grateful.
Q) What are your thoughts on the lottery business, which had once earned you good revenue?
Ans: Our party pledged to revive the lottery business which was a substantial source of revenue for the Royal Government of Bhutan. At the same time, we will ensure that the lottery business is conducted in a lawful manner and all proceeds go to our education and health sectors.