THIMPHU: Setting out on his first overseas trip after becoming India's prime minister, Narendra Modi Sunday received a stirring welcome from hundreds of school children and others in Bhutan as the two neighbours focused on extensive development cooperation and discussed measures to enhance bilateral economic ties.
Modi, who flew in to the landlocked Himalayan nation a little before noon local time (11.10 a.m. IST), called on Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and held talks with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, besides inaugurating the new Supreme Court building in Hejo, constructed with Indian funding. He rounded off the day by attending a banquet given in his honour by Tobgay.
In the morning, after being accorded a red carpet welcome at the picturesque Paro International Airport, where Tobgay greeted him in the traditional Bhutanese style by draping a khada around his neck, Modi was driven in a huge convoy amid tight security to the capital city, with hundreds of school children and others cheering him along the route.
Many of them waved the national flags of India and Bhutan, while enthusiastic school children, some of them carrying colourful umbrellas, lined up at various spots. Several welcome arches with cutouts of Modi and Tobgay added to the festive atmosphere.
On one arch was written: "Bhutan takes pleasure welcoming our close friend Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi". Another was dedicated "to Bhutan and India - a shining testimony of bilateral relations".
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh accompanied Modi.
Late in the afternoon, Modi called on the king and the premier and described their close and friendly ties as "B2B" or "Bharat to Bhutan" relations, official sources said.
Modi expressed satisfaction at India being considered a privileged partner of Bhutan, and stressed that his government "would not only nurture these strong bonds, but would also strengthen them", the sources said.
"The primary focus of both the meetings was the extensive development cooperation between the two countries and measures to enhance the economic ties," they said.
Modi emphasised the possibilities of greater educational contacts and suggested doubling the scholarships being provided to Bhutanese students in India and promised assistance in setting up a digital library which will provide Bhutanese youth access to two million books and periodicals.
Ahead of his meeting with the king, Modi was extended a ceremonial welcome. Drummers struck up a rousing tempo as performers dressed in traditional attire rendered ethnic dances during the colourful programme at the sprawling courtyard of the Tashichhoedzong - the secretariat of the Bhutan government on the northern edge of the capital city.
Adding to the festive atmosphere, flag bearers walked in rhythm while musicians played traditional instruments like large cymbals.
Modi's trip comes ahead of a further round of bilateral dialogue between China and Bhutan, which is sandwiched between the two big neighbours.
India is also involved in building schools, libraries, drinking water projects, and community centres in Bhutan, a crucial northern neighbour of just 750,000 peace-loving people, with which Chian shares a 500km border through Tibet.
Beijing is keen to establish closer ties with Thimphu and has been trying to set up an embassy in the Bhutanese capital.
In his pre-departure statement on the eve of his trip, Modi described Bhutan as a "natural choice" for his maiden visit abroad after taking over the reins in New Delhi, and said relations with the neighbouring nation would be a key foreign policy priority of his government.
Modi will Monday call on former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck, a close friend of India, and address a joint sitting of the third session of the second parliament of Bhutan.
Later, he will unveil the foundation stone of the 600 megawatt Kholongchu hydropower project, a joint venture model between the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam and Druk Green Power Corporation. Construction on the project is expected to start later this year.
The Bhutan king will then host a lunch in honour of Modi and his delegation, before they depart from Thimphu.