Prime minister Narendra Modi’s first foreign visit—to Bhutan—was in conformity with his desire to establish better relations with India’s neighbours. The world had an inkling of his diplomatic priorities when he invited all the SAARC nations to his swearing-in ceremony. By accepting his invitation so warmly, they also reciprocated his gesture. Among them, Bhutan enjoys a pride of place. New Delhi’s relations with Thimphu have always been cordial. However, the strength of their ties cannot be measured in terms of bilateral trade alone.
The value of scholarships India provides to Bhutanese students to pursue higher studies may be just a couple of crores of rupees but its true value is immeasurable. Similarly, the significance of the new Supreme Court complex that India built and dedicated to the Bhutanese people during Modi’s visit is far beyond the cost involved. India and Bhutan have much in common, including a civilisational past. Though Bhutan is a monarchy, it practises one of the world’s best forms of democracy. Small wonder that the Bhutanese have been adjudged the happiest, though their per capita income is a fraction of, say, Qatar’s or Norway’s. While India has a lot to offer in terms of technology, it also has a lot to learn from its neighbour. It was good that Modi’s first port of call was Thimphu.
Modi cannot but be aware of the diplomatic challenges India faces in the whole of South Asia. China, flush with money, has been resorting to chequebook diplomacy in the region. New ports, financed and built by the Chinese, have been coming up in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, For the first time, China’s investment in Nepal has surpassed India’s. China has also been wooing Thimphu with tempting investment proposals. It is against this backdrop that Modi’s Bhutan visit should be seen. It shows that he is aware of the region’s critical importance to India’s economic dynamism and strategic strength. As Modi has rightly emphasised, a strong and economically vibrant India is necessary for peace and stability in the region.