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Bhutan king shows the way in South Asia

Jyoti Malhotra  |  New Delhi 

The visit of of Bhutan and his queen, Jetsun Pema, as last-minute chief guests to the celebrations has charmed India's political elite, what with a likely meeting with Congress Vice-President (the Congress scion went for Khesar's wedding to Thimphu in 2011) expected to consolidate the special relationship with the Himalayan kingdom.

This is the third time a Bhutanese king has taken the salute at — Jigme Dorji, whose friendship with Nehru set the tone of the unique India-Bhutan relationship, came in 1954. His son, Jigme Singye, was chief guest twice, in 1984 and in 2005. The fact that the current monarch ignored all the taunts describing him as a “last-minute filler” (he was supposed to have stepped in when the Sultan of Oman withdrew at the last minute) only vindicates the degree to which Delhi returns the affection.

There is much that the rest of South Asia can learn from the incredibly equal India-Bhutan relationship. For a start, bilateral trade in 2011-12 was $433 million, of which Indian exports stood at $230 million while Bhutanese exports stood at $203 million. Considering 75 per cent of Bhutan's trade is with India, the secret of its high income rests with the sale of Bhutanese power to India from power plants that Indian companies have helped build in Bhutan.

The Chukha and Tala hydel projects were among the first projects built in the Eighties, but in the next few years three hydel projects — Punasangchhu-1, Punasangchhu-2 and Dagachhu — are expected to fuel further growth. With 1,200 Mw installed capacity, Punasangchhu-1 will overtake Tala, whose 1,020 Mw installed capacity remains the largest hydel project in Bhutan today.

Then there is the proposed 733-acre Jigmeling special economic zone in Bhutan's southern reaches, bordering Assam, for which the government of Bhutan has recently floated a global bid. Bhutanese officials say they hope Indian industry, especially those based in Assam and West Bengal, will take advantage of the SEZ.

Interestingly, although Bhutan has a fully elected government, headed by Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley, it is the young king who still wields enormous influence across the country. So, while the Bhutanese government is believed to be making efforts at normalising relations with China, and is responding to efforts by Beijing to demarcate the Sino-Bhutanese border, it is the young king, Jigme Khesar, who has unapologetically declared that he “loves” India.

Certainly, for the rest of South Asia, with whom India has varying degrees of strained relationships, ties with Bhutan have always been a welcome respite. Government officials say they hope the rest of South Asia can learn from the India-Bhutan model, pointing out that Nepal's hydro-electric potential at 88,000 Mw is about three times of Bhutan, at 23,760 Mw.

But Nepal is in the throes of a self-inflicted constitutional crisis, not knowing whether it should go for fresh elections or revive the Constituent Assembly elected in 2008 but hardly met before it was dissolved last May.

India's ties with the Maldives is in even greater disarray, with Delhi turning down a proposed visit by its President Waheed but still unable to make amends with the former President, Mohamed Nasheed, who was deposed in a coup a year ago.

As for the rest of South Asia, the prognosis seems equally uncertain. Talks between India and Pakistan are at a standstill, whether those between the trade ministers of the two sides or those between the two water resources ministers. With Bangladesh, talks on an extradition treaty only indicates the matter of Ulfa leader Anup Chetia, who has been inside Bangladesh territory for about two decades now, is nearing fruition. Meaning, Delhi has been asking Dhaka for Chetia for several years and it is likely he will be handed over soon.

Nevertheless, Delhi remains unable to push for the ratification of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh or even negotiating the Teesta waters agreement any time soon. Bangladeshi sources say they are, once again, “giving what India wants” but not able to get anything from Delhi.

Clearly, Delhi's South Asia policy seems in total disarray. Under the circumstances, the visit of the Bhutanese king and his gorgeous wife affords some happy distraction.

Political wags point out that with the Gandhi family's generational ties with the dynasties of South Asia — with the Wangchuks of Bhutan, the Bhuttos of Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh — it might be a good time to inject the newly-anointed Congress vice-president into the vagaries of South Asian politics.

First Published: Mon, January 28 2013. 01:22 IST