India must balance its strategic interests with Bhutan’s aspirations
The victory of the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) party in Bhutan’s third parliamentary election is being seen as a vote for change in the small Buddhist country that has undergone major change in recent years. The DNT and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) were the only parties in the fray in Thursday’s general election after they secured the highest number of votes in the first round of voting last month, which also saw the defeat of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In a country that identifies the Gross National Happiness (GNH) as being more important than the Gross Domestic Product, the electoral candidates had even agreed not to discuss sensitive national security and foreign policy issues during their campaign. The DNT is a centre-left party formed just five years ago by surgeon Lotay Tshering, who pledged to work for “nation building” and boosting economic development. The party has been cautious on the issue of taking up major infrastructure projects, such as hydropower plants, because Bhutan is grappling with high foreign debt, much of it money owed to India.
For many in India, Bhutan is best known as the country whose territorial claims India had stepped in to defend during last year’s military standoff with China at Doklam, an area currently controlled by Beijing but claimed by Thimphu. This strategic region is located close to the “chicken’s neck” or the tiny sliver of land that connects the Indian mainland to the northeastern states. Many years earlier, Bhutan had cooperated with India for a major military operation to drive out hundreds of members of militant groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom, who were sheltering in the neighbouring country. Both these episodes reflect how closely Bhutan is linked to the security of India’s northeastern states. And yet, the Doklam standoff led some in Bhutan to call for the country to adopt an independent foreign policy, one that is not too closely aligned with India, so that it could resolve its dragging border dispute with China.
The country of some 800,000 people has undergone massive changes since it slowly began opening up after former king Jigme Singye Wangchuk introduced democratic reforms more than a decade ago. There is a growing debate within the country on the position it should adopt vis-à-vis its two powerful neighbours, India and China. As India takes steps connected to its legitimate security concerns in the region, it must ensure that it is not perceived as an overbearing presence, but one that has the best interests of the Bhutanese people at heart.