The queries covered a wide range of issues from currency to politics

Relations: The Indian ambassador, Gautam Bambawale will be rooting for Bhutan to win its upcoming World Cup qualifying matches with China, it was revealed at a talk on the relationship between the two countries given at the Royal Thimphu College, yesterday.

Ambassador Bambawale was responding to the first question from the audience following his presentation on where he sees relations between the two countries in the next 15 years.

An exchange student of Chinese origin from the USA, after exchanging greetings with the ambassador in Mandarin, in which he is fluent having served in China for several years, pointed out that economic relations between Bhutan and China were bound to improve, as evident with the growing number of Chinese visiting the country.  She questioned how long it might take for diplomatic relations between Bhutan and China to be established.

“As far as the Bhutan-China relationship is concerned, that’s something the people of Bhutan, the government of Bhutan, have to decide for themselves,” he said.

And in a display of his diplomatic skills, the ambassador then guided the audience’s attention to Bhutan and China’s upcoming match up in the second round of the World Cup qualifiers.

“I’ll be cheering for both Bhutan and China because I like both these countries,” he said. “But I’ll be hoping that Bhutan wins,” he added, to the applause of his audience.

The ambassador faced a few other tough questions.

He was asked what the Indian government is doing to prevent further kidnappings in the south. He said that the issue was being taken very seriously and that a major campaign has been launched against militants which is already achieving good results. He added that close collaboration with the Royal Bhutan Police and increased policing on both sides of the border has already increased safety and security in the south.

However, in the long term, he said only increasing prosperity will eliminate such threats.

The ambassador was also asked if the Indian government placed any conditions or requirements on how money provided to Bhutan has to be used.

The ambassador said that, when Bhutanese friends tell him they are grateful for the Indian assistance, he responds by telling them that both sides benefit. “I tell them, don’t be so grateful, because this is a two-way street, Bhutan benefits, but India benefits also,” he said.  He pointed out that a “strong, stable, prosperous” Bhutan was in India’s interest, as it helped it to tackle problems like the militancy it faces in Assam.

The ambassador also pointed out that India was not an aid-donor.  He said that he is aware that there are concerns in Bhutan that long time aid donors might withdraw as the country grew more prosperous. “We’re not going to stop assisting Bhutan, if Bhutan’s per capita income reaches six, seven or eight thousand US dollars per person per annum,” he said.

“There are no other conditions, apart from the fact that we hope Bhutan continues on this course of continuing to remain a stable, peaceful and progressive society.”

During the first half of his talk, the ambassador also discussed hydropower. He said it would be the Bhutanese people’s decision on whether to place a limit on the amount of hydropower it should tap.  The ambassador said there was little doubt that when constructing any huge project there were pros and cons, and the economic and environmental protection aspects had to be considered. “The decision is entirely in the hands of the people of Bhutan,” he said. “The government of India and people of India have absolutely no say in this matter.”

However, it was also pointed out that, while India is also developing its own sources of electricity, the country will always have an insatiable appetite for power.

A question on the advantages and benefits of pegging the ngultrum to the rupee was also asked. “As long as India continues to remain an important market for Bhutan, perhaps, it’s in Bhutan’s best interest to keep the currency pegged at one-to-one ratio,” said the ambassador. “But this is a decision that has to be made by the people of Bhutan, by the Royal Monetary Authority and government of Bhutan,” he added. “If you feel that unpegging the ngultrum from the Indian rupee is in your interest, you should go ahead and do it.”

He was also asked whether it would be possible for the ngultrum to be accepted in West Bengal, so that the one-to-one value is maintained in border areas.  The ambassador said he did not think it was a big issue as it arose only from time to time, but that it was still being taken seriously and that the central banks of both countries are trying to address it.

The talk was not entirely a serious one, with the ambassador showing his humorous side periodically.

While covering the cultural similarities and links between Bhutan and India, he said that as ambassador, he received a ticket to the popular Indian singer Lucky Ali’s recent concert in Thimphu.

“I’ve never heard this guy before and didn’t know what the hell he sang,” he said, to the laughter of the audience.

“But I was amazed when I went there that every Bhutanese person in the audience was singing along with Lucky Ali.” He pointed out that this was an example of the strong cultural linkages between the two countries.

By 2030, the ambassador said strong political ties would still exist under the guidance of His Majesty the King and the royal government.  He added that it would be immaterial which political party was in office in either Thimphu or New Delhi, because the reasons for the two countries to work together, particularly in trade, hydropower, tourism, and education, among others, would be even stronger then.

By Gyalsten K Dorji

The Indian government and the Royal Thimphu College will introduce the Indian Ambassador’s scholarship, which will be available from the end of this academic year, it was announced yesterday. RTC graduates will be able to apply for a master’s degree at a reputable institution in India. All living expenses, airfare, and tuition will be borne by the Indian government.