Why did Bhutan, which stood by India during its conflict with China and Pakistan, drift away? What caused the crisis in bilateral relations in 2013?
It is clear that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power three years ago, he was deeply aware of the changing strategic imperatives in the Himalayas. He made Bhutan his first visit abroad, followed by a trip to Nepal in 2014, albeit under his government’s emphasis on the “neighbourhood first policy”.
Bhutan was a protectorate of British India and New Delhi inherited this relationship in 1947. The 1949 treaty of friendship modernised bilateral ties and thought it preserved a key element of the earlier compact until that too was revised in 2007, the actual relationship has remained somewhat complex and enigmatic.
The prime minister’s 2014 visit was dominated by economic themes including the need to further develop Bhutan’s rich natural resources and hydropower potential for mutual benefit, but deep down he was painfully aware of the palpable signs of China stepping up contacts with Bhutan. In fact, before Modi came to power, Beijing had done sufficient ground work to cut India’s “sacred bond” with India first and then create a string of political electrons along the Himalayan region from Arunachal, Sikkim, Nepal to Ladakh.
Indeed, most Indians were not fully aware about the status of Indo-Bhutan relations until critics cried shrilly over the crisis that erupted in the summer 2013 and put India’s “carefully nurtured and fostered” relations with Bhutan under major strain.
However, it needs to be underlined that over the years, India’s traditional ‘sacred bond’ with Bhutan has been disastrously allowed to erode and the Himalayan state merely remained as an object of strategic play against China where cutting deals by using the carrot-and-stick approach became the rule of the business. This approach was not sustainable; nor was it a sign of prudent foreign policy.