India’s prime minister arrived in Bhutan on Friday, where he told the kingdom’s first elected government that India was ready to “join hands with the people of Bhutan” to strengthen bilateral relations and accelerate development in the small country.
Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuk
Fifty years after India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru went to Bhutan on horseback, current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to the Bhutanese capital Thimphu on Friday for a two-day trip, the first by an Indian leader since the Himalayan kingdom embraced democracy earlier this year.
Singh's brief visit to the Land of the Thunder Dragon is especially significant because it coincides with the kingdom’s celebrations of the monarchy. He addressed a joint session of the first-elected parliament of Bhutan, becoming the first international leader to be given the honour.
“This is a special year for India-Bhutan relations,” said the Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, also travelling in the Prime Minister’s entourage, before the trip.
“For Bhutan itself, it is the centenary of the Wangchuk dynasty. It is also the year of the coronation of the king of Bhutan, the year when democracy was ushered in and parliament was elected, Bhutan is going through an internal transition”
Contemporary energy and economic partnership
Singh's visit focuses on developing a more diversified and contemporary economic and energy partnership in tune with emerging realities in the two countries.
“India and Bhutan have a very special relationship,” explained Indian diplomatic analyst Manish Chand, which is “considered a model of all bilateral relationships as it is completely hassle-free.”
“With Bhutan, we have extensive hydro-electric cooperation so energy security is an important and abiding theme. What is important is that Manmohan Singh is going to a different Bhutan, which is opening up to the world and is the youngest democracy in South Asia.”
With the controversial India-US civil nuclear deal still in political limbo, experts believe that Bhutan's hydro-power potential of 31,000 MW could become an important part of New Delhi's quest for energy security.
Trip to consolidate ties
Prime Minister Singh was due to hold talks with Bhutan’s former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, and his 28-year-old son, the present monarch Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. He was also to meet his Bhutanese counterpart, Jigne Thinley.
Foreign Secretary Menon said the trip would consolidate ties: “It is the 50th anniversary of Pundit Nehru’s visit to Bhutan in 1958, which in a sense laid the foundations for all that we have seen in a relationship that is truly warm, close and friendly.”
India and Bhutan signed an updated treaty of friendship last year, which gave Thimphu, hitherto guided by New Delhi in its defence and foreign policies since 1949, more freedom in international diplomacy and non-lethal military purchases.
India is not only Bhutan's main development partner but also its leading trade partner. It has undertaken a slew of infrastructure development projects in Bhutan, including the building of roads in the mountainous nation of 700,000 people.