What is the significance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bhutan?
This is the question on the minds of those at home and others watching his second visit to the kingdom closely. Even as political pundits and media try to analyse the purpose of the visit, what is clear is that the two countries are in agreement to diversify their bilateral relations.
Taking cue from the agenda, Prime Minister Modi is in the country to start off cooperation in fields that the two countries have been talking about for a while. Besides the formal inauguration of the 720 MW Mangdechhu project, a highlight of the visit is the Prime Minister’s address to Bhutanese youth at the Royal University of Bhutan hall on Sunday.
There are several memoranda of understanding to be exchanged and these agreements are in fields that are a priority for Bhutan. Agreements of cooperation will be signed in the field of education, research, space technology, and medicine and aviation safety, among others.
There is no doubt development assistance and hydropower has been the cornerstone of the bilateral relations thus far, but with development and change, the priorities are changing.
Indian leaders and Bhutan’s well-wishers in India had been saying that the two countries should explore cooperation in fields where Indians and Bhutanese can work together and gain from each other’s experience. They are suggesting cooperation, with renewed urgency, in the field of science and technology, agriculture, developing and harnessing alternate source of energy.
These are priorities and should not be politicised or seen as Bhutan trying to shed its dependence on India. For instance, climate change could challenge the fabric of our friendly relations if it impacts water sources, agriculture and, indeed, every aspect of the livelihoods of the people of India and Bhutan. So interlinked is our geography that a swelling river in the hills and valleys of Bhutan impacts thousands of lives in the plains of India. This is one area of cooperation that is essential between India and Bhutan.
Hydropower is still important. Bhutan has the potential and India needs energy, especially clean energy. Our experience in building hydropower projects recently has not ben the best example. This calls for improved research and technology in building hydropower projects and improved relations in the sector, if not in exploring alternatives.
Bhutan’s aspiration to diversify its economy has been misunderstood. What is important is that it should be seen as progress, a result of decades of cooperation between the two friendly neighbours.
Bhutan’s progress after decades of planned development with Indian assistance will be appreciated among leadership in India. It is in their interest to see their most-friendly neighbour develop and not depend on aid or assistance even after decades of sponsored planned developments.
Like Prime Minister Modi said in his statement before leaving for Bhutan, the visit, in the beginning of his second term, reflects the high importance his government attaches to India’s relation with Bhutan.
For Bhutan and her people, it is yet another milestone in the journey of Bhutan-India friendship. The visit is a testimony to peaceful coexistence of a big country with her small neighbour that has become exemplary to the rest of the world beyond.