[The analysis was first published here on the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) blog network site]
Engineering of election results in Bhutan falls much short of a diplomatic victory of India
At the peak of campaigning by Bhutan’s two political parties for the recently concluded National Assembly (NA) elections, word spread that India was unhappy with the shrill nature of arguments – and their counters – related to India. Almost immediately, the said conversation was cooled down by both the parties and the campaigning from thereon stayed clear of it.
But the mood of the electorate was already set by opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which spearheaded a pitched call to bring Bhutan deeper into India’s political sphere of influence, for the sake of India’s strategic and financial support.
The ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party (DPT), on the other hand, struggled to dispel the PDP charge that the closeness of the previous prime minister Jigme Thinley with China was pushing India towards withdrawing economic oxygen to Thimpu.
India’s stalling of kerosene and cooking gas subsidy grants to Bhutan on July 1, just weeks before the election date, which pushed up prices by three times, was seen by most ordinary Bhutanese affected by the price rise as an argument in favour of the PDP charge.
It did not matter that India officially dubbed the subsidy reduction as a “procedural issue” and that some Bhutanese thinkers equated the Indian action with a business tit-for-tat against revised power export rate from Bhutan.”
PDP won 32 seats in the 47-member NA in the July 13 elections – up exponentially from a mere two seats in the previous assembly.
It was the result that India wanted, except that it may not have factored in the long-term cost of the “perceived means” to the end.
The subsidy issue right ahead of elections invited accusations from certain sections of India’s dishonesty, manipulation and gross interference in Bhutan’s election process.
Speaking, perhaps for a growing community in his nation, Wangcha Sangey, a legal consultant based in capital Thimpu, wrote in his blog: “National interests of Bhutan have to rise over and above the politics of always playing the Indian tune. […] Bhutan and Bhutanese are sovereignty unto our self. Therefore Bhutan’s paramount national interests and affairs just cannot be only pleasing India. We have to please ourselves too!”
Reflecting the extent of his anger at India’s perceived high-handedness, he then went on to write: “We are not paid sex workers that benefactors need to know when our eyelashes and asses move and in which direction.”
By “national interest” and “the direction” in which Bhutan needs to move, he was alluding to the furor caused by Thinley’s May 2012 meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Rio de Janeiro at the sidelines of Rio+20 summit in Brazil.
While on one hand abuse was heaped upon him by fellow Bhutanese for “endangering historical ties with India” by being cordial with the latter’s bitter rival, India saw Thinley government’s import order of 20 buses from China during the Rio meeting as strengthening of Thimpu’s commercial relationship with China at the cost of India.
More than that one meeting, India’s heightened sensitivity rested on Thinley government’s decision to go on a diplomatic overdrive and establish diplomatic relations with a whopping 32 countries during its five-year reign – up to 53 countries in 2013 from the 21 that existed in 2008.
Indians saw the frenzy as undue haste in acting upon a 2007 revision of the 1949 India-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship, which till then allowed India to “guide” Bhutan’s foreign policy, and had a provision wherein both nations needed to consult each other closely on foreign and defence affairs.
The new treaty replaced the provision requiring Bhutan to take India’s “guidance” on foreign policy with broader “sovereignty” and enabled Bhutan to not require India’s permission over arms imports.
Already uncomfortable with Bhutan’s urgency in spreading out, what got India’s goat eventually were reports that Bhutan was preparing to establish diplomatic relations with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – including, and most worryingly, China.
Bhutan remains the only one of China’s 14 neighbors with which the dragon doesn’t have diplomatic relations. In the long-drawn battle for supremacy between China and India, New Delhi has always suspected Beijing of trying to win over Bhutan from India’s ambit.
But the big questions doing round in Bhutan and amidst many policy corners of India is whether that fear of India should be reason enough for India to go for the sledgehammer – especially against the backdrop of historical and geopolitical realities.
Bhutan shares a 605-kilometer (376-mile) border with India, which is its largest trading partner, accounting for 98 percent of its exports and 90 percent of its imports. Also, Bhutan’s only means of doing trade with the rest of the world so far is via 16 entry and exit points that India allows.
Against the seemingly claustrophobic arrangement, India has invested over $1 billion on the construction of three hydropower projects in Bhutan and has agreed to import at least 5,000 megawatts of electricity from Bhutan by 2020. Sale of electricity to India is one of the major exchange earners for Bhutan.
Bhutan also hosts an estimated 200,000 Indians – including Indian troops, which help Bhutan stay clear of and secure from terrorism and sectarian extremism.
It is because of this intertwined nature of relations that even at this discomforting hour writers like Kinley Dorji, the managing editor of Bhutan’s news daily Kuensel, argue: “Sovereignty – which India’s critics in the kingdom cite – works not in the abstract, but in daily lives as well. Bhutan and India, he notes, share a symbiotic relationship and it is in Bhutan’s interests to have closer relations with India than with China.”
Of course, and reflecting the general mood, he also carried on and advised in the same vein that it is in India’s interest to offer financial and technical help to Bhutan.
One of Sangey’s angry posts was titled: “India-Bhutan: Friend or Master.” Unless India begins to come across as the former – again – in the eyes of the hurting Bhutanese, it may not be able to hold on to its geopolitical need to be the latter.