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Unequal in size but equal in mutual respect

Old-timers in Thimphu are already comparing Narendra Modi’s arrival to Jawaharlal Nehru’s first trip to Bhutan.

ht view Updated: Jun 13, 2014 22:06 IST

It is now the Thimphu valley’s turn to be Modi-fied. Roads are being repaired and flex images of both prime ministers raised. However, hoardings that cover the view of mountain peaks are not generally encouraged. School students will line up and wave flags of India and Bhutan along the 50-km stretch from the country’s only international airport in Paro to Thimphu, greeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s entourage.

“What do we do when we expect a guest at home? We clean our homes!” Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay wrote on Facebook as this Himalayan Kingdom readies to welcome Modi on June 15.

Modi will be also the first non-Congress prime minister to visit the country, more than half-a-century after Jawaharlal Nehru extended his hand of friendship to the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. Though tiny but fiercely independent and never colonised, Bhutan was happy in its self-imposed isolation. But changing geo-political realities and Mao’s 1949 statement that Tibet is the palm of China and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh were the fingers were threatening. Against this backdrop, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck invited Nehru, who visited Bhutan on the back of a yak in 1958. In another two years, Bhutan closed the traditional trade route with Tibet. As war broke out between India and China in 1962, Bhutan’s first motor road was constructed with Indian funding. With `107 million, India fully funded Bhutan first Five-Year Plan, which started in 1961. India’s assistance to Bhutan’s 11th Plan, which began this year, stands at `50 billion.

Between Nehru and Modi, Indira Gandhi visited the country once, Rajiv Gandhi came twice and Manmohan Singh addressed the first democratically-elected Parliament of Bhutan in 2008. As Modi rode to victory, there were apprehensions that the warm relations Bhutan had with Congress-led governments will be affected. But his ‘neighbours first’ policy and choosing Bhutan for his first foreign visit is taken positively in Thimphu.

Old-timers in Thimphu are already comparing Modi’s arrival to Nehru’s first trip to Bhutan. Nehru’s cajoling to open up a hermit kingdom for India’s assistance was seen with scepticism by the urban elite then. Modi’s visit comes against the backdrop of a fiercely fought election here. India’s lifting of fuel subsidies to Bhutan a week before the polls was seen as India acting tough on Bhutan for former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley’s warming up to China. But Tobgay’s conservative foreign policy will have its focus on India.

At a time when doubt rules international diplomacy, the friendship between India and Bhutan is based on trust — the best example of how two countries, very unequal in size and might, can coexist.

Aby Tharakan is an Indian media consultant based in Thimphu

The views expressed by the author are personal