Blowback from India’s strategic blunder in Bhutan?
New Delhi was rattled by Bhutan’s October 18 general election, the outcome of which may soon accelerate the decline of India’s influence over the Himalayan kingdom.
Focusing on Bhutan’s ties with domineering India was not permitted during the election campaign – violators faced fines and reprimands. However, the so-called pro-Indian ex-prime minister Tshering Tobgay’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) lost in the first round on September 15.
Consequently, Indian strategic analysts worried that New Delhi’s influence over the northern frontier nation would be further diminished over the next five years as a result of India’s friend Tobgay being ousted. The Bhutanese people endorsed the DNT’s election manifesto and newly elected Prime Minister Tshering Loaty said he was firmly committed to honoring his party’s election promises.
This recent development in Bhutanese politics matters for India. The DNT’s election manifesto outlines three fundamental policies. First, it aims to diversify Bhutan’s economy to reduce the Indian monopsony of its hydroelectricity.
Second, the DNT emphasizes the reduction of Bhutan’s external debt of US$2.5 billion. The DNT surmises that unless Bhutan reduces its foreign debt vouched by India, it will remain subject to overbearing New Delhi’s influence in the future.
Third, the DNT’s manifesto also underscores private-sector investment for sustainable economic growth and Lotay’s economic policy goal is to attract foreign investment from sources other than India. If the Bhutanese economy starts to diversify, India cannot offset China’s foreign direct investment in Bhutan.
These three critical economic policies aim to free Bhutan from India’s domination. Therefore, Bhutan’s new government will continue its efforts to achieve the status of an independent country in the days to come, and India’s influence will decline further.
Many analysts believe India’s influence in Bhutan began to wane after the Doklam standoff in the summer of 2017. However, the tipping point for diminishing Indian hegemony in Bhutan goes back to 1990 when India used scaremongering tactics to get the government to exile more than 110,000 Nepali-speaking-Hindu Bhutanese (one-fifth of Bhutan’s total population at that time) called Lhotshapasas from Bhutan.
India’s strategists and intelligence officials feared that the popular uprising that overthrew the Nepalese king’s despotic regime in early 1990 could happen elsewhere. They miscalculated the likelihood of a collective demand for a separate independent nation by the Nepalese-speaking people of Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalingpong, Duars, and southern Bhutan because the Lhotshapas were already demanding respect for human rights and democracy in late 1989.
Bhutan’s new government will continue its efforts to achieve the status of an independent country in the days to come, and India’s influence will decline further
Driven by paranoia, India used scare tactics to persuade Bhutan to drive out the Lhotshampas. Hari Sharma, an aide to then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala (1992-95) and then-president Ram Baran Yadav (2008-15), quoted Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the Nepalese daily Naya Patrika on October 27: “Lhotshampas were exiled due to Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi’s pressure, and Indian intelligence also paid for ULFA (United Liberation Front for Assam) to exile them from Bhutan.”
Similarly, Balaram Paudel, the Bhutanese People’s Party’s exiled leader, wrote in Kantipur, a leading Nepalese daily, on July 22: “The Bhutanese king suppressed the Lhotshampas with the slogan of ‘one nation, one nationality’ and India indisputably backed up the King of Bhutan.”
The Hindus believe in the notion of moksha, emancipation from the cog of life and rebirth; all their karmas (actions) and the dharmas (rectitude) aim to secure moksha or rebirth in heaven. One of the key karmas and dharmas of Hindu is to go on a pilgrimage to Char-Dhams (Four Abodes), which are situated in India. For Hindus, India is crucial for not only this life but also for life after death.
Thus, if the Lhotshapas had not been driven out of Bhutan, they would have been represented in the political life of Bhutan, and they would, because of their Hindu beliefs, been more inclined toward India than the Drukpa people. However, the Indian foreign-policy mandarins ignored this Hindu factor and persuaded the Bhutanese king to exile the Lhotshapas to prevent a separatist movement they feared would emerge in the Indian Chicken’s Neck in 1990.
Bhutan is an India-locked country, and the nearest Nepal-India border is about 350 kilometers by road from the Bhutan-India boundary. The Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the West Bengal Police kept trucks at the Bhutan-India border to take Bhutanese refugees forcibly into Nepal. Moreover, the BSF did not permit Bhutanese refugees to re-enter India when they tried to return to Bhutan several times using the same route, repeatedly expelling them to Nepal. If India had not initiated the expulsion of the Lhotshapas, Bhutan never would have considered such a move.
India’s strategy of fomenting racial friction in Bhutan later turned counterproductive. The Bhutanese king has started to foster diplomatic relations with many countries. When India realized that Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was playing a game to overcome Indian dominance, it forced him to relinquish the throne to his son in 2006.
India also pressured Bhutan to initiate democratic reforms. However, India’s move became counterproductive because, during the tenure of Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister, Jigme Y Thinley (2008-2013), the kingdom forged diplomatic ties with 32 additional countries.
Thinley wanted to develop diplomatic ties with China, its northern neighbor and one of the veto countries of UN Security Council, and he met with his counterpart, Premier Wen Jiabao, on June 21, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro without consulting India in advance. India’s angrily reacted with an “LPG subsidy cut” between the first and second round of the election in 2013. As the result, Thinley lost the election in the second round.
However, it was too late because Bhutan already had the centrifugal force needed to offset the centripetal force of India’s influence. Lotay’s victory in the 2018 general election indicates that Bhutan is an increasingly independent nation.
No one sees any point in Bhutan looking toward India once its economy diversifies, which was stressed in the DNT’s election manifesto, and Bhutan develops its ties with China, leading to Bhutan securing maritime access through Chinese routes in the future. The culture, language and religion of the Drukpa are distinct from those of India, as their forefathers were migrants from Tibet in the 9th century.
Indian foreign-policy makers think they are meticulously calculating in the case of Bhutan, but they actually seem quite obtuse. India’s foreign-policy makers felt they had secured their country’s strategic interests with their political maneuvering in Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kalingpong, Duars, and Bhutan by exiling Lhotshapas; however, their idiocy boomeranged 28 years later because Bhutan will not need India in the future.
I still remember when I met in person then-prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai (1990-91) in 2008, as he decried Indian foreign policy: “They [Indians] don’t know in New Delhi what this [Indian role in exiling Lhotshapa from Bhutan in 1990] can lead to in the future.” Bhattarai was right to be skeptical regarding India’s strategy in Bhutan.
Bhutan will continue its efforts to free itself of Indian domination by diversifying its economy, reducing external debt and private-sector development by attracting foreign direct investment from China in the next five years. Perhaps now India is realizing that it made strategic miscalculations in Bhutan.
I am wondering what kind of cartoon Puthukky Nair Kutty would draw to depict India’s geopolitical locus in Bhutan right now. If Kutty were still alive, I surmise, he would draw an Indian man wearing an Indian flag-coloured outfit with his knees offering a receptacle (on which the official documents that hand over the power to manage the security and foreign affairs of Bhutan is placed) to a Chinese man wearing a Chinese flag-colored outfit and says, “Mr China, could you please accept my offer to you?”