As Bhutan goes to its final phase of polls on October 18, the Doklam and China factors will keep India on tenterhooks because Bhutan has started slowly changing its stance in a subtle way.
Both India and China, two of Bhutan’s giant neighbours will be closely monitoring the outcome. The tiny Himalayan nation is geo-strategically tucked between the two mighty neighbours. And, for both India and China, Bhutan has become a strategically important neighbour.
There has been some discomfort in India following the elimination of ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by Tsering Tobgay in the preliminary round. Tobgay was considered as pro-India. Probably Bhutanese people do not want their country to be branded as pro-India. Tobgay’s shocking defeat has also been attributed to ‘Doklam factor’ by some of the keen observers of Bhutan politics.
China’s growing presence in South Asia as well as its consistent efforts to gain ground in Bhutan is a major area concern for India.
Bhutan has been a trusted ally of India since decades. But in 2012, India was taken aback when Druk Phuensum Tshogpa government in Bhutan led by first elected Prime Minister Dasho Jigme Yoser Thinley met Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the Rio Earth Summit at Brazil. At that time Bhutan kept India in the dark about the meeting. Upset at Bhutan’s gesture, India withdrew petroleum subsidy to its neighbour before the 2013 elections. Thinley wanted Bhutan to open up to its other big neighbour like China for economic reasons.
DPT was ousted in 2013 elections and the PDP came to power with a landslide victory. Immediately after that the PDP had announced ‘rebuilding bilateral ties’ with India as its top priority.
Five years later, the scenario has changed again. DPT is again in the race for government formation in the Himalayan Kingdom but now under the leadership of Pema Gyamtsho. India is well aware of the fact that its relation with Bhutan was under stress during the DPT regime. Social media posts are also trying to highlight the possible impact of Indo-Bhutan relations if DPT comes to power.
“If DPT comes to power be ready for six things due to party’s poor relation with India. This is also the reason why DPT has minimum pledges compared to all other parties — A) Double price for Gas and increased price for petrol and diesel B) No or reduced 12th plan money from India and so many developmental activities stopped since India is largest donor. C) No hydro projects happening. In 2013 elections time GoI wanted to stop hydro projects if DPT came to power. This means no new revenue. No pay hike for civil servants and corporations. D) Power rates of existing projects will be reduced like in 2013 when GoI announced removing tariff subsidy from Chukha. This means current revenue will drop. E) With reduced funds from India and less revenue the rupee crisis will come again and F) Chinese give only commercial loans and so like Sri Lanka and Pakistan did DPT will have to mortgage Bhutanese land for 99 years to Chinese for funds,” a Facebook post says.
China’s hostile behaviour and claims on Doklam also surprised Bhutan. This has also probably compelled Bhutan to cautiously build deep relations with India which is not without ‘terms and conditions.’
Tensions between China and Bhutan started way back in 1951 following Chinese occupation of Tibet. China claimed considerable territory in central and northwestern Bhutan in its map. Both China and Bhutan differ not only on Doklam but also on Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys in northwestern Bhutan. Since 1984 both the countries are holding annual parleys on boundary issues. China’s proposal to exchange its claim over the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys for Bhutan’s northwestern territory in Chumbi Valley is also another area of concern for India. Chumbi Valley lies in close proximity to the Siliguri Corridor which is India’s one of the most strategic and sensitive territories. The Siliguri Corridor is very important as it connects the entire Northeast India with the rest of India.
The common perception among the Bhutanese is that Bhutan should maintain its ties with India and at the same time open up for China also and establish diplomatic links.
Regardless of which party comes to power in Bhutan, it will be interesting to see how the new political dispensation formulates its foreign policy with its two giant neighbours. And India will be keen to see whether the last bastion within its sphere of influence remains intact.