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Amid China fears, Bhutan stands out

December 23, 2010 15:52 IST

It is time India valued this relationship and paid more attention to the Land of the Thunder Dragon, says Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's recently concluded visits to India and Pakistan only served to further highlight the different nature of that country's relationships with the subcontinental neighbours.

The Indian government has decided that it will stand up to Chinese pressure where it can, and although there was some soul-searching before finally deciding to attend the Nobel peace ceremonies, the uneasy tenor of the relationship will predominate. China's trade may reach stratospheric heights with India but its special 'all-weather friendship' with Islamabad will keep New Delhi very wary of Beijing's intentions.

While strategists in the Indian government agonise over how to manage the vital relationship with China and worry about the fallout from an increasingly assertive, if not aggressive, China's policy of encircling India, one area of good news for India and the last bastion, as it were, against Chinese advances appears to be the tiny, landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The factual status of Bhutan's relations with China is that there are none, Bhutanese government sources have clarified. While China keeps "knocking at their door" offering huge incentives Bhutan, like the little Gaullish village we have all come to love in the Asterix comics, appears intent on ensuring the Chinese stay out, much to the relief of the Indians who appear keen but unable to go the extra mile to keep the "special relationship" with Thimpu going.

According to India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, "Our relations with Bhutan are an example of good neighbourliness, based on trust, and mutual understanding." But while the government attaches "high priority to our relations with Bhutan and are happy to assist Bhutan for its development, progress and prosperity," very little appears in the public domain.

"India and Bhutan are responsive to each other's security concerns and cooperate closely on border management," Rao said, but details are not forthcoming.

And unlike the enormous media coverage and government hype surrounding most state visits, little is broadcast of visits from the leadership of Bhutan, despite its enormous strategic importance to India. All the special words of praise appear as one-way traffic from the Himalayan kingdom.

While both governments have strived to build on the genuinely "all-weather" nature of the bilateral relationship, there is a personal element that drives the ties; the personal push from the fledgling democracy's monarch, the Druk Gyalpo and the royal family. Little is made of the fact that Bhutan's last monarch actually led his troops into battle against Indian insurgent groups which had taken shelter there.

The scion of one of the world's youngest royal dynasties, Bhutan's young monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk is certain that his country's future lies squarely in India's camp and is bent on ensuring that relations with India continue to thrive. In fact, he is a man on a mission -- to deepen the already flourishing ties with India by making them "more intimate and dynamic."

"India is a world leader. It is not her economic or military might alone -- it is the character of the Indian nation -- her commitment to democracy, to engendering global equality among nations, to liberty," the young King said to the Indian National Defence College, of which he is an alumnus.

The emphasis in bilateral ties has shifted from the mere construction of dams and hydropower generation towards the judicious use of information technology to spread knowledge and governance and delivery to the most far-flung areas of the country, while sharing with India recipes on how best to conserve the environment.

Meanwhile, both India and Bangladesh are willing to give Bhutan physical connectivity to the world at large and provide transit facilities for road, rail and port facilities, while an information super highway connecting India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh is due to be completed by 2012.

Unlike neighbouring Nepal, where the monarchy was ousted largely because of the huge unpopularity of the last King, Bhutan's King voluntarily gave up the absolutely monarchy and assumed a ceremonial role even though there is genuine affection and even reverence for the monarchy and the monarch. Again, unlike Nepal, the King has been the prime mover behind the transition to democracy.

According to Rao, "Bhutan's democratic transition, which began with the first elections in 2008, is progressing in an exemplary manner," and "On our part we have happily shared our experiences as a democracy with it."

In some aspects, the transition to democracy in the Himalayan nation has been truly been exemplary, with the monarchy increasingly moving away from politics towards providing a broad direction, in the role of a "friend, philosopher and guide" while urging the democratically elected leadership to resolve immediate issues of governance.

With a democratically-elected government now firmly in place, the King finds time out of his internal travels for breaks, unlike his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who never took a break in 34 years of his reign. 

Jigme Khesar allows himself an occasional break like a couple of days recently in Ranthambore -- the first since he assumed the monarchy four years ago (he became King in December 2006 after his father abdicated).

The earnest young man claims Bhutan is India's closest neighbour and friend and in the King of Bhutan, India has a guarantee of good neighbourliness. 

"I left India (after a stint at the NDC), as the staunchest proponent of Indo-Bhutan friendship as the key to Bhutan's future, even in this new globalised world." Jigme Khesar said.

And although Bhutan is now a democracy and new leaders are emerging in this Himalayan neighbour, it will be the King, who has demonstrated his affinity for India and whose grandfather made the decision to ally with India, in whom India should place its trust.

"Some say Bhutan was wise to seek strong bilateral relations with India. Yes, after all whether we speak about our socio-economic progress or our recent transition to democracy, India has been our steadfast partner and friend," he said at the Madhavrao Scindia Lecture in New Delhi last year.

It is time India valued this relationship and paid more attention to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Nilova Roy Chaudhury