(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
In recent months the Narendra Modi government has committed two mistakes in its foreign policy dealings. The first originated in December last year when Lotay Tshering, the new prime minister of Bhutan, visited India. He invited Modi for a reciprocal visit to his country. Modi accepted the offer but has already taken seven months to go to the Druk kingdom finally. Given Bhutan’s vital geo-strategic location, the Indian Prime Minister should have gone there earlier.
The second one happened during the recent visit of S. Jaishankar, India’s new Foreign Minister, to Bhutan. Jaishankar spoke of cooperation in matters of developmental programmes in his public pronouncements but quite unnecessarily harped on the role of hydropower in matters of Indo-Bhutan relations. Now generation of hydropower and building up of hydroelectric power stations have become a highly emotive issue among the Bhutanese people who think that by selling hydro power to India at cheap rates Bhutan is incurring heavy losses. So, there are reasons to think that Jaishankar should have downplayed the subject not just in public utterences but even in his official confabulations with the Bhutan government.
This was necessary because the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), now in power in Bhutan, is largely an unknown entity to the mandarins in New Delhi’s South Block. It is a centre left organization and was formed in 2013 only. But it has reservations about hydropower becoming the mainstay of the Bhutanese economy and expressed it clearly in its election manifesto which, strangely, is mum about the DNT’s foreign policy. But the manifesto is very vocal about the growing unemployment among the Bhutanese youths and asserts that reliance on mere hydroelectricity generation will not solve the problem. Here lies the uncomfortable prick for India.
It is obvious that the most important concern for Narendra Modi during his Bhutan visit will be eliciting a specific response from the Druk kingdom in regard to the Doklam issue. The Prime Minister of Bhutan has already called upon China and India to maintain status quo in regard to this aspect. The Indo-China confrontation over Doklam is too well known and need not be repeated here. The Bhutan Prime Minister’s statement makes it amply clear that the situation now stands at what it had been prior to the 72-day stand-off.
But for New Delhi other instances of strategic concern loom large. According to Indian intelligence report the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) of China has already built an all-weather road from Gotsa to Lepola via Pamlung gobbling up in the process large swathes of Bhutanese lands in the Sino-Bhutan northern frontier area. China has already offered 495 square kilometres of area to Bhutan in the northern sector in exchange for 269 square kilometres of area in the north-west so that it can widen the Chumbi valley thus making it militarily manouvreable for carrying out scissor like operations into India’s Siliguri corridor.
But apart from Doklam there are other strategically important positions in Bhutan attracting China’s attentions. Beijing has applied pressures on Thimpu to cede to it Charithung, Sinchulimpa and the Dramana pasture lands neighbouring Doklam. For maintaining strict vigil on the Charithang valley Beijing has reportedly constructed roads over the Zuri and Pheeteogang ridges overlooking Charithang. If the geographical contiguity of all the locations mentioned above is taken into consideration then it becomes clear that China has only one target- widening of the Chumbi valley of Tibet at the coast of Bhutan.
It requires diplomatic niceties to handle such a situation and the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship, as amended in 2007, must chart out a new course for the aspiring young generations of Bhutan who are showing signs of propensities for leaning towards China. In 2017 Bhutan experienced 8 per cent economic growth accompanied by high unemployment rate and very high debt. Its external debt amounts to 108 per cent of its GDP and 80 per cent of this debt burden stems from loans, mostly from India, for financing hydro electric projects. The dragnet of hydropower in Bhutan’s economy is such that it amounts to 14 per cent of the country’s GDP and 27 per cent of government revenue.
In his forthcoming tour the Indian Prime Minister should try to find a solution to the oft-repeated allegation in the Druk kingdom that increasing hydro power resources are bleeding the country increasingly as India buys most of the generated hydro electricity at cheap rates. Using this misunderstanding China has been holding out the carrot of developmental financing before Thimpu and this was the scenario that had induced Jigme Thinley, a former prime minister of the country, to open negotiations with China.
At present there are two uncomfortable aspects for India so far as its relations with Bhutan are concerned. First, even after the easing of tensions over Doklam China has been reported as not to have stopped its activities near the Doklam plateau. Recently the Deccan Herald newspaper, citing another source, revealed that a large number of vehicles and tents under camouflage were seen on the reverse side of Doklam. How is Bhutan viewing this development? Secondly, the political and economic credo of the ruling DNT party is “ Narrowing the Gap” which essentially means reducing the income inequality through diversified economic activities. The DNT manifesto clearly expresses that “it would be unwise to hinge the country’s economy solely on a single sector” (meaning the hydropower arena). This is the logic which had driven even a pro-India former prime minister of Bhutan like TseringTogbay to state that “Our relations with China, the second largest economy in the world and an emerging global power, is increasing and we continue to maintain peaceful and cordial relations”.
So Narendra Modi has a tough job on hand. How he handles it is a million dollar question.