How India is losing Bhutan, its last ‘friend’ in South Asia
India is at risk of seeing Bhutan, its only ally in a troubled neighbourhood, slip out of its orbit and into China's arms if it persists with coercive commercial diplomacy out of a sense of pique with the Himalayan kingdom.
In the hostile ‘desert’ environment of South Asia, India’s relationship with the landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has long been seen as an oasis. Where virtually every one of India’s neighbours has turned borderline hostile against India - whom they accuse of being a ‘big brother’ – the relationship with Bhutan has endured thus far.
But India’s effort at promoting coercive commerce diplomacy with its last ‘friend’ in South Asia may have had the effect of cutting even that stable relationship adrift – and into the waiting arms of China, which is looking to expand its diplomatic influence in Thimphu. Bhutan is the only one of China’s 14 neighbours with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations, and it has been looking to win over Bhutan from India’s orbit, so to speak.
Early this month, India withdrew all subsidy on cooking gas and kerosene that it had been providing to Bhutan, sending gas and kerosene prices in Bhutan soaring, in the days leading up to next week’s general election. This has given rise to protests from within Bhutan that India was looking to stoke discontent within the kingdom in the hope of influencing the election outcome. Some commentators have gone so far as to call this “meddling” in Bhutan’s internal affairs.
This has emerged as the most proximate reason for the strain in relations, although Indian diplomats claim that this was merely the latest in a long line of incidents that grated on the relationship.
According to Indian officials, the move to end the subsidy on cooking gas and kerosene was a purely a commercial decision, not a political one. They point out that India was facing its own subsidy constraints at home and was risking popular discontent at home by withdrawing subsidy. In such an atmosphere, the scope for providing ‘blank cheque’ subsidies in the form of developmental aid to neighbours had considerably diminished, they claim.
Indeed, these officials claim, virtually every one of India’s neighbours – except Afghanistan – has seen delays or outright cuts in grants and plan outlays from India.
But even if it has some merit in it, the claim is being met with scepticism in Bhutan. India’s handling of the matter has made for bad optics, which has only fed the sense that India is acting out of pique that the erstwhile government of Prime Minister Jigme Thinley had reoriented Bhutan’s foreign policy towards China.
For instance, Bhutan’s ambassador had written to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to ask after the recent cut in subsidies, but Khurshid has evidently not seen it yet, since he has been on the road. It reeks of an effort by the Indian government to postpone a decision on the subsidy cut until it is it too close to the elections.
In any case, Indian officials point with astonishment to the many different signals from Thinley that he was steering his government’s foreign policy towards China and away from India. Last year, for instance, after a meeting with the Chinese Premier in Rio de Janeiro, his government imported 20 buses from China, which was seen in India as strengthening of Thimphu’s commercial relationship with China at the cost of India.
Political commentators in Bhutan resent what they see as India’s “overlordship” over the kingdom’s affairs. Writing in his blog, political analyst Wangcha Sangley wondered: “Why do Indian media and politicians want to castrate Bhutan for the most harmless relationship effort with China? Just the other day, I heard a rumour of a bureaucrat of India chastising Bhutanese leadership of being “dishonest”. What the hell is that suppose to mean? Which national leaders and governments bare its soul to another nation? We are not paid sex workers that benefactors need to know when our eyelashes and asses move and in which direction.”
He then urges Indian officials and the media to “treat Bhutan as a friend, not a pawn to be manipulated… Stop herding us like lambs in a pen to be slaughtered whenever India desires a dish of lamb stew.”
Simultaneously, Bhutan has been pressing India to accept a hike in tariff from the hydropower generated from the Chukha project in Bhutan. But the Indian side sees the tariff hike as extraordinary, and unwarranted.
Even given its diplomatic missteps, India is not without friends in the kingdom. In a thoughtful post on Kuensel, writer Dorji observes that ‘sovereignty’ – which India’s critics in the kingdom cite – works not in the abstract, but in daily lives as well. Bhutan and India, he note, share a “symbiotic relationship”, which requires Bhutan to be “intelligent and cautious” in its dealings with India.
Bhutan’s leaders, he adds, should “not be delusional about how we conduct our relations with India.” At this point, he reasons, it is in Bhutan’s interest to have closer relations with India than with China. Likewise, it is in India’s interest to offer financial and technical help to Bhutan. “The relationship with India has been strained, let’s mend it now.”
But despite such expressions of goodwill for India from within Bhutan, India seems set on scoring a spectacular diplomatic self-goal – and seeing its last ‘friend’ in South Asia slip out of its orbit.
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