PM Tobgay’s Return And The Revitalization Of India-bhutan Relations

In a recent parliamentary election, Bhutanese voters have chosen the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to lead the nation, securing 30 of the 47 National Assembly seats. Led by former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, the PDP’s victory marks a return to power after a five-year stint in opposition. Tobgay’s notable conservation advocacy, coupled with Bhutan’s commitment to a democratic journey, is evident as voters undertook arduous Himalayan journeys for a two-stage electoral process. This political shift reflects Bhutan’s evolving democracy, underscored by strict regulations addressing social media’s influence, making Tobgay’s return a testament to experienced leadership’s enduring appeal.

PM Tobgay’s Vision for Economic Recovery and Strong Bhutan-India Ties

Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan’s re-elected Prime Minister, reinforces a commitment to strengthening ties with India, drawing on past collaborations since both leaders assumed office in 2014. Responding to congratulatory messages from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tobgay expresses eagerness to nurture the nations’ enduring friendship. Amid Bhutan’s economic challenges, with a 29% unemployment rate and a tourism slump post-COVID, Tobgay emphasizes Bhutan’s openness to business. Addressing India’s concerns over Bhutan’s previous talks with China, there is optimism Tobgay will prioritize preserving the longstanding partnership with India.

Nestled in the Himalayas with a population under 800,000, Bhutan faces a post-pandemic challenge: reviving its fragile economy heavily reliant on foreign aid and tourism. Newly elected leader Tobgay promises to attract investments to the $3 billion GDP, creating jobs and stemming the rising tide of youth migration seeking opportunities, primarily in Australia. Bhutan, about the size of Switzerland, boasts a predominantly Buddhist population that enjoys strong economic and trade ties with its colossal yet benevolent and caring neighbor, India, which serves as its primary donor. The small Himalayan nation needs to jumpstart its aid- and tourism-based economy, address youth unemployment, and leverage ties with India to foster new growth

The strong ties between Bhutan and India have reached new heights, evident in the recent visit of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to key Indian cities and the convenience of visa-free travel. This visit, focusing on historical bonds and trade connections, rekindled prospects for enhanced connectivity, trade, security, and business along their shared border. Exciting initiatives like internationalizing a Bhutanese airport and establishing a border economic zone hold the promise of economic growth and increased regional collaboration. India’s role as Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor since 1949 reflects a deep, trusting relationship, with India contributing significantly to Bhutan’s development. The visit solidified the enduring positive aspects of this relationship, underscoring its critical importance for both nations.

Historical Foundations of Bhutan-India Relations: Bhutan and India share deep-rooted ties, evolving from ancient religious connections to a robust partnership. The modern friendship emerged in the 1950s when Jawaharlal Nehru and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck laid the foundation for Indo-Bhutan relations. The landmark 1949 Indo-Bhutanese Treaty secured perpetual peace, free trade, and equal rights. From 1981 to 2001, Bhutan’s exports to India averaged 86.5%, reflecting a robust free trade regime. Hydropower collaboration stands as a cornerstone, with Bhutan’s vast potential benefiting both nations. Beyond trade, India’s contributions extend to sectors like finance and small businesses with the State Bank of India being Bhutan’s first foreign investor and Indian entrepreneurs operating businesses. Indo-Bhutanese cooperation has yielded notable achievements, including modern infrastructure. This enduring multifaceted partnership goes beyond economic ties, symbolizing a strong friendship between these South Asian nations.

Hydropower Collaboration as a Cornerstone: Hydropower collaboration between Bhutan and India epitomizes regional synergy in South Asia. With Bhutan’s potential of 30,000 MW, economically viable at 23,760 MW, the current harnessing reaches 1,625 MW, poised to surge by an additional 10,000 MW by 2020, albeit delayed and recalibrated. This alliance ensures Bhutan’s sustainable development revenue and meets India’s escalating energy needs, solidifying the relationship as a bilateral cornerstone.

Overcoming initial challenges, such as financial constraints and scientific complexities, India has played a pivotal role in supporting Bhutan. Together, they have successfully executed monumental projects, including the 336 MW Chukha Hydropower Plant (1988), the 60 MW Kurichhu Project (2002), and the 1020 MW Tala Project (2006). Buoyed by these achievements, during Prime Minister Modi’s visit, Bhutan established ambitious targets to harness 10,000 MW, extending energy and prosperity to previously underserved remote areas, ensuring inclusive development. This robust collaboration, reinforced by diplomatic ties, stands as a cornerstone in their enduring relationship.

Educational and Cultural Ties: The deep relationship between India and Bhutan transcends politics and economics, flourishing in education and culture. India actively nurtures Bhutan’s educational development through initiatives such as offering approximately fifty scholarships annually to Bhutanese students for higher studies in India. Indian teachers stationed in remote areas play a vital role in Bhutan’s educational journey. Strengthening this bond, Sherubtse College in eastern Bhutan, affiliated with Delhi University, stands as a leading higher education institution. India’s commitment extends further with scholarship programs like ITEC, Ambassadors Scholarship, and Nehru-Wangchuck Scholarship, providing additional support for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

Beyond their close political and economic ties, India and Bhutan share robust cooperation in civil aviation. Originating in 1983, Bhutan’s national airline, Druk Air, initiated commercial flights to India, connecting Paro to Calcutta initially and expanding to Delhi in 1988. These flights enhance travel convenience, fostering people-to-people links. India’s support to Druk Air includes a 1998 notification, lowering fuel costs through the Indian Oil Company at bonded rates. Acknowledging Bhutan’s mountainous terrain challenges, India granted Druk Air permission in 2000 to use Bagdogra airport for refuelling, technical stops, and adverse weather situations, enhancing operational efficiency. In 2003, Druk Air introduced flights to Bodhgaya, exemplifying how civil aviation cooperation bolsters religious and cultural connections between the two nations. Alongside formal agreements, informal people-to-people contact plays a crucial role in solidifying the enduring friendship between India and Bhutan.

The Recent Royal Visit and Future Collaboration: Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck undertook an eight-day visit to India on November 3, amid renewed efforts to resolve the longstanding border disagreement with China. In a warm meeting, King Wangchuck and Prime Minister Modi explored bilateral cooperation, regional concerns, and global issues.  The King further extended his praise for India’s recent G20 leadership, applauding the summit’s organization and the forging of constructive agreements laid out in the New Delhi Declaration. He especially commended India’s commitment to integrating the interests and priorities of the Global South into the G20’s discussions and official documents.

Since April 2023, substantial progress has occurred in various domains, including infrastructure, trade, education, and environmental conservation. Bhutan’s King shared insights into ongoing reforms, expressing gratitude for India’s unwavering support in socio-economic development. India reaffirmed its deep commitment to the unique relationship, pledging continued collaboration aligned with the Royal Government’s priorities and the King’s vision. Bhutan appreciated India’s timely development assistance, ensuring the completion of crucial projects in the current Five Year Plan. As Bhutan enters its next plan, India reiterated its commitment to further enhance support, warmly welcomed by the Bhutanese side. Notably, hydropower cooperation remains a cornerstone, strengthened by Basochhu hydropower’s recent surplus power export, creating new market opportunities for Bhutan.Top of Form

Celebrating the imminent completion of Punatshangchhu-II hydropower project, scheduled for commissioning in 2024, both nations applauded advancements in Punatsangchhu-I. Acknowledging the potential of clean energy, they committed to broadening collaborative efforts into solar, hydrogen, and e-mobility initiatives. India reiterated its dedication to providing technical and financial support for these eco-friendly endeavours. Beyond energy discussions, mutual satisfaction was expressed in fruitful collaborations in space exploration, highlighted by the historic launch of their jointly developed satellite and the inauguration of its ground station in Thimphu. Education, especially in STEM fields, took a prominent role in the dialogue. In a final note, India warmly embraced Bhutan’s decision to join the International Big Cat Alliance, underscoring their joint commitment to environmental stewardship.

Indian Ambassador’s Insights on Bilateral Ties: The Indian Ambassador highlighted the significance of His Majesty’s visit to Assam, signaling a new phase in bilateral cooperation. Announced initiatives, like the Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail-link and Gelephu-Dadgari integrated check post, underscore the commitment to regional economic growth. Looking ahead to 2024, the focus remains on enhancing connectivity, economic cooperation, and people-to-people connections, aligning with Bhutan’s vision of becoming a high-income nation by 2034.Conclusion: The visit of His Majesty, The King of Bhutan, to India reaffirmed the established tradition of regular dialogue between the two nations. During his visit, His Majesty graciously extended an invitation to India’s Prime Minister for an official visit to Bhutan. Honouring this gesture, the Prime Minister warmly accepted, with the specific dates to be finalized through diplomatic channels. As Tshering Tobgay prepares for his second term as Bhutan’s Prime Minister, a resilient bond with India takes centre stage. The election echoes a commitment to enduring ties, economic resurgence, and continuity of sustainable development. Bhutan’s journey, guided by Tobgay’s leadership, intertwines seamlessly with India’s steadfast support. Together, they embark on a promising path marked by shared values, mutual growth, and a strengthened alliance that promises a bright future for the interconnected nations.