Keen to start his foreign tours from the neighbourhood, prime minister Narendra Modi has picked up Bhutan for his first visit. The move is in tandem with his decision to call the heads of the SAARC countries for his swearing-in and shows that Modi’s foreign policy will be east-centric rather than confining itself to dependence on the US and the West where Modi will like India to be treated as an equal. Though foreign policies do not change overnight with the change of regimes, Modi has an opportunity to recalibrate it. He must deploy a robust foreign policy with economic diplomacy as its primary tool.
Bhutan’s relations with India are not only cultural and ethnic, but also diplomatic in the sense that it was the first country which recognised an independent Bangladesh soon after its liberation in 1972 by the combined efforts of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini. Since the US and China were then deeply perturbed by the show of Indian might and Pakistan’s dismemberment, the reaffirmation of the ties between New Delhi and Thimpu was a sign of regional solidarity.
Bhutan was then a monarchy. Now, it is a democracy, but with a difference since it measures its progress in terms of Gross National Happiness and not GDP. The outlook is typical of an Indian and Asian mindset where it has been known for millennia that material wealth is not the be-all and end-all of life, as it is in the West. Modi’s simple life symbolises this attitude. Of course, the trip will have not only a spiritual aspect, but also deal with economic cooperation including the hydel projects which are the sources of power supply to both countries. Besides, with China looming large in the backdrop, New Delhi would like the bilateral links to be further strengthened. At a time when two of India’s neighbours—China and Pakistan—are regarded as troublesome, Bhutan provides a reassuring contrast.