19-25 July 2013 #665

Thimphu gets the message

Bhutan’s incumbent rulers forgot that he who pays the piper calls the tune
Rahul Gomez in Thimpu

From the Indian perspective, it does look like the opposition PDP’s victory in elections in Bhutan on 13 July proved that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

The ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) seems to have forgotten this during its five-year rule of Bhutan until New Delhi sent a rude reminder by withdrawing subsidies for cooking gas and kerosene from India just days before the polls.

The price of vital gas and kerosene more than doubled and the DPT was swept out of power. Though scrubbing Indian subsidies could not be the only reason and Indian excuses about bureaucratic bungling could also be true, what goes without saying is that India’s action triggered a political realignment in Thimphu by uniting the opposition against the incumbent DPT.

Whatever the truth, the perception in Bhutan is that India interfered in its internal politics. India could well blame ex-Prime Minister Jigme Thinley for trying to expand his country’s global footprint, establishing diplomatic relations with 11 more countries in his five-year rule. But it is also true that India has been helping Bhutan not out of altruism but for its own national interest.

Thinley’s global outreach shouldn’t have unduly dismayed New Delhi, which had agreed to revise in 2007 the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship that the two countries had signed in 1949. Till then, Article 2 of the treaty stated that ‘the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations’.

Through the revision in 2007, Bhutan and India were now only required to ‘cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests’. This gave Thimphu the right to conduct its foreign relations as it deemed fit. The revision of the treaty was undertaken in an explicit recognition of the sovereignty of the government that the people of Bhutan were then expected to elect soon.

But Thinley irked New Delhi by playing footsie with China, which wants a robust presence in South Asia for economic reasons and to throw a shield around Tibet. It seems to be the Tibet factor that prompted Beijing to offer a package solution to resolve its border dispute with Bhutan, announced on the sidelines of the United Nations Rio+ 20 conference last summer. China said it was willing to concede its claims in the north of Bhutan in return for a quid pro quo in the country’s west.

China covets territory in West Bhutan for expanding the Chumbi Valley in Tibet, which would make it easier to conduct military manoeuvres in a narrow finger of territory that protrudes down into India. However, this would bring China perilously close to the Chicken Neck, India’s strategic corridor to its northeastern states. Beijing’s offer to Thimphu, therefore, was inimical to India’s interests.

What really ticked off New Delhi was that Thinley chose not to keep India in the loop. He was also deemed to be extremely keen on engaging with the five permanent members of the UN (US, China, UK, France, and Russia) which India wanted kept out of Bhutan. Thimphu had bestowed honorary consul status on citizens of some of these countries residing in Bhutan.

New Delhi seems to have therefore decided to nip Thinley’s plan before China’s growing shadow loomed over Bhutan and India and the best way to send the message was by cutting fuel subsidies just before elections. Free lunches are a rarity in international relations and Thinley forgot that.

In New Delhi, foreign policy architects are reconciled to the fact that as a regional power, it will invite hostility of sections in neighbouring countries. But as with the blockade of the Nepal border in 1989-90, they haven’t got over their urge to retaliate as and when they see India’s national interests undermined, particularly vis-a-vis China. There is a price to pay: creating a long-term perception that India is a bully.

New Delhi will have to take into account that as democracy develops deeper roots in Bhutan and among its other South Asian neighbours, governments will respond to the popular will. Despots, on the other hand, face no such compulsions and are easier to manipulate.