After a lapse caused by the Covid pandemic, the images of His Majesty The King and Prime Minister Modi, and of Indian leaders calling on His Majesty in New Delhi is a reminder of the images of Bhutan-India relations over the years. Generation after generation of Bhutanese and Indians have been tuned into the fact that our friendship must not be taken for granted, but must be continuously nurtured.
Indian foreign minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, posted after his audience with His Majesty: “Our close and unique partnership advances with his vision and guidance.” This is what different generations of Indian leaders said about our Kings. Years after his introduction to India, as Crown Prince and as King, it conveys the message that India’s familiarity with His Majesty has matured from a regard for a Crown Prince to respect for a King.
The historical, geographical, spiritual, socio-economic connections that form the basis of Bhutan-India relations is well known. With both countries experiencing rapid evolution, it is also acknowledged that the nature of relations must evolve. After a Covid-related pause, one question that rises is what can be the new thinking in this long-acknowledged relationship and friendship?
Bhutan has entered a new era and we are seeing the transformation of governance as well as of our society and our economy. Today, we are pursuing progress with prosperity. This would mean fresh horizons in our economic relations. The idea that India is a large market and, therefore, an exciting economic opportunity, is not new. Neither is the fact that we will continue to buy essentials from India. But it is high time that we look beyond vegetables and other basics to new needs.
What is the untapped potential in India as we aim to be a complementary partners, offering one another what each can do best? Bhutan aims to complement, not compete, with India in a rapidly changing world arena. So Bhutan needs to strengthen ideas, services, products, that will be of use and of importance to India.
A win-win alternative to the current imbalance is to offer India a quality choice of what it needs. What is India buying from elsewhere? What can we export to India as well as the larger South Asian and South East Asian neighbourhood? It is time Bhutan explored and developed areas in which it may fill such a need.
Planning Bhutan’s economy to complement that of India’s will mean greater prosperity for Bhutanese and better goods and services accessible to India. It will mean evolution of friendship based on a partnership where we trust and depend on each other.
The concept of mutually beneficial cooperation has been the foundation of Bhutan-India relations since His Majesty King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru forged a unique friendship described as a shining testimony of bilateral relations. That will not change.
We have borrowed from India in most areas – government planning, education and legal systems, the economic structure, even the creative industry. But we cannot continue trying to do what India does better. This calls for intelligent planning in the way forward. This calls for new ideas in a new era.