In its first official engagement with the new Bhutanese government, India has assured Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering that it will keep the financial requirements of the kingdom in mind while finalising the budget for its 12th Five Year Plan. The assurance has come even as New Delhi prepares to host the new Bhutanese PM in the next couple of months.
The commitment to formulate the FYP (2018-2023) as per Bhutan’s needs was made during foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s three-day visit to Bhutan beginning November 18. India has been anticipating an upward revision in the FYP allocation in view of the significant emphasis on the social and health sector by Dr Tshering’s party, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) during its election campaign.
The finalisation of the FYP is seen as a “key priority” by New Delhi which the MEA statement indicates without stating it in as so many words. It expects a recalibration of the FYP as Thimphu put forth its financial assistance requirements during the tenure of the previous government led by Tshering Tobgay.
For the 11th Plan, India had allocated Rs 4,500 crores and also provided Rs 500 crores as part of an Economic Stimulus Plan. However, with the DNT sweeping to power in the land-locked country with promises of free education up to Class XII, taking health services to people’s doorstep and maternity benefits for women, among other things, New Delhi is ready to tweak the 12th FYP in keeping with budgetary needs. “We will defer to their needs as the genesis of India’s assistance is based on Bhutan’s priorities,” said sources.
The FYP Plan once it’s finalised is expected to be passed by the newly elected Bhutanese National Assembly next month. The Bhutanese PM is then expected to make his visit to India, traditionally the first port of call after election.
Coming to the discussions between the two sides, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) said in a statement issued on Tuesday that the foreign secretary in his meetings “conveyed that India attaches the highest priority to further expanding its unique ties of friendship and cooperation with Bhutan based on the priorities of the Royal Government of Bhutan”.
The statement also said that one of the issues discussed by the two sides was hydro-power cooperation. In this regard, India was possibly seeking to assuage Dr Lotay Tshering’s party’s concerns about hydropower not generating adequate employment for the country’s youth and the increasing current account deficit which is about 30 percent of GDP, attributed partly to the machinery imported for hydropower projects.
Apart from meeting the newly elected PM, Gokhale also met the new Bhutanese foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji and foreign secretary of Bhutan Sonam Tshong. The FS also had an audience with the present king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as well as his father, the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck who ushered in democracy into his tiny, isolated kingdom in 2008.
The meeting with the King is significant as he is not only a much revered and popular figure in his country but also one who determines in no small measure the foreign policy course of his country.
India will also be seeking to build a close rapport with the new government in strategically located Bhutan which has China as its northern neighbour. The Tshering government, it’s learnt, has emanated positive signals and indicated to New Delhi that it wants to take bilateral ties forward. The conversation between PM Narendra Modi and Dr Tshering when the former called him up to congratulate him on his party’s victory has been described as “warm and effusive”.
This should be a matter of relief to New Delhi who had to deal with a China-leaning Bhutanese PM, Jigmi Y Thinley, between 2008 and 2013. While Bhutan and China do not have diplomatic relations, Thinley was succeeded by PM Tshering Tobgay who is seen as being pro-India. Bilateral ties under his government remained on an even keel. However, the face-off between India and China near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction in the Doklam area and the building of infrastructure in this area by the latter has had New Delhi concerned. Therefore, it would certainly not want a China-leaning PM in Thimphu.