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PM talks of good neighbours, B2B ties in Bhutan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi Sunday called on Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and also held talks with the landlocked Himalayan country's premier, Tshering Tobgay. Why India chose Bhutan

india Updated: Jun 16, 2014 09:20 IST
Jayanth Jacob

Arriving to a rousing welcome in the Himalayan nation wedged between India and China in his first visit as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi on Sunday declared to expand bilateral ties he termed as "Bharat to Bhutan" (B2B) relations.

Modi, who called on Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and later met the nation's premier, Tshering Tobgay, expressed "satisfaction at India being considered a privileged partner of Bhutan, official sources said". "The primary focus of both the meetings was the extensive development cooperation between the two countries and measures to enhance the economic ties," they said.

The Indian PM called for greater economic ties and a more responsive Indian financial assistance to Bhutan. He suggested doubling the scholarships provided to Bhutanese students in India and offered help in setting up a digital library of two million books and periodicals in the Himalayan nation.

In his meetings with the Bhutanese leadership, PM Modi said his government would not only nurture strong relations with the nation but would also strengthen them, the sources said. On the opening day of his two-day visit to Bhutan, the Indian PM also inaugurated the new supreme court building in Hejo, which was constructed with funding from the Indian government.

Modi assured Bhutan that India is committed to its happiness and progress. He specified areas such as peace, security, development and tourism for focus of pushing bilateral ties.

Speaking at a banquet hosted by Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Modi said India and Bhutan are "made for each other" considering the "glorious" traditional linkages between the two countries.

“I said a while back B for B (Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat), I said it just like that but later I realised that it must be a sign from god that I said this,” Modi said.

Referring to Bhutan's unique trait of laying thrust on ‘Gross National Happiness’ rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Modi said one of the parameters for measuring this could be the consideration that it has a "neighbour like India".

"The colour of our passports may be different but our thinking is the same...India stands committed to Bhutan's happiness and progress," asserted the Prime Minister, who chose this country as his first foreign destination to send out a signal about special treatment for it.

He said though government in India has changed, Bhutan remains a priority for New Delhi and it will strengthen further the relations.

The Prime Minister's comments about India being a good neighbour assume significance since China has lately intensified efforts to woo it and establish full-fledged diplomatic ties with Thimphu.

Earlier in the day, a cutout outside Taj Tashi hotel in Thimpu, where Modi will stay during his two-day Bhutan visit on Sunday and Monday, read, "Welcome to our close friend, India's prime minister Narendra Modi."

And it was not the only message from Bhutan to Modi. Another banner by the highway read, "We pray for the health and well-being of prime minister Narendra Modi."

The quintessential tone of Modi's first foreign trip is that of friendliness and expectations.

Hundreds of schoolchildren cheered and waved the national flags of India and Bhutan as Modi arrived in this small Himalayan nation at 11.40 am local time (11.10am IST) to a red carpet welcome at the picturesque Paro International Airport.

He was accompanied by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, national security advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh. The Indian Prime Minister was greeted by his Bhutan counterpart, Tshering Tobgay, his cabinet ministers and senior government officials.

Tobgay earlier told The Hindu newspaper the visit was "proof to the world that two countries despite the differences in size can enjoy a relationship that is problem-free and mutually beneficial".

Relations with India remained "the cornerstone of Bhutan's foreign policy", he added.

Tobgay was one of seven regional leaders invited to Modi's inauguration. Analysts say the decision to make Bhutan his first port of call is designed to underline the importance he places on neighbourly relations, which suffered under the last Indian government.

"Bhutan may be a small country but it is strategically very important and... China is on the other side," said Ranjit Gupta, a retired ambassador. "If you aren't interested in your neighbours, they'll lose interest in you."

Read: Modi's Bhutan visit a drive to reassert Indian influence in the region

With the exception of Pakistan, India enjoyed generally close ties with its South Asian neighbours in the first six decades after independence.

But critics say the previous Congress party government began to take relationships for granted, allowing economic giant China - which shares a border with four of India's neighbours - to step into the breach.

The Buddhist nation, wedged between India and China, is the closest India has to an ally in South Asia, a region of bristling rivalry where China is making inroads.

Modi's visit comes just ahead of the 22nd round of bilateral talks between Bhutan and China expected in July or August this year. These talks, which began in 1986, are an effort to resolve the long-pending border dispute between the two nations. Thimphu is keen to use the talks to have a better relationship with Beijing.

The bilateral talks are expected to focus on strengthening ties over Bhutan's hydropower plants, which supply much-needed clean energy to India. Bilateral trade was worth $1.1 billion in 2012, and Tobgay said Bhutan's hydropower industry was "the centrepiece of our bilateral cooperation".

India, a power-deficit nation with severe outages, has helped Bhutan develop three hydropower plants with another three under construction.

"Bhutan and India share a very special relationship that has stood the test of time," Modi said before his departure for Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, which is nestled in mountains and was for centuries closed to outsiders. "Thus, Bhutan was a natural choice for my first visit abroad."

A Bhutanese daily quoted Tobgay as saying, "Bhutan looks forward to strengthening the economic partnership with India and to strengthen the Bhutanese economy."

Bhutan, the size of Switzerland and with a population of 750,000, has only recently emerged from centuries of isolation and has a lot to achieve.

Its first road was built in 1962 and television and the internet arrived in 1999. It is the world's first country to monitor gross national happiness an alternative to gross domestic product, to balance a tentative embrace of modernity with an effort to preserve traditions.

But Bhutan, which made the transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy in 2008, is struggling with high unemployment and a growing national debt.

The government that took power 2012 says rather than talk about the happiness index, it wants to focus on obstacles to happiness.

(With inputs from Agencies)