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The faraway neighbour

Fracas with Bhutan underlines why Delhi must recast its neighbourhood policy

The “crisis” in India’s relations with Bhutan did not begin with New Delhi’s bungled withdrawal of petroleum subsidies in the middle of the recent elections. Nor has it ended with the claim that the next government in Bhutan will be “pro-India”. Recent developments in Bhutan reflect India’s growing foreign policy challenges in the neighbourhood. They are a reminder that many of the traditional assumptions of India’s regional policy are no longer sustainable.

For one, Delhi must come to terms with the reality that paternalism, however benign it might appear from India’s perspective, is no longer a sensible approach towards its smaller neighbours. For paternalism breeds resentment. Put simply, India can no longer afford to treat Bhutan as a protectorate, in the manner that the British Raj and independent India dealt with it for more than a century and a half.

The British Raj had propped up a ring of weak states around the subcontinent as buffers against intrusion by other powers. The rulers of these small states traded the freedom to conduct their own foreign policy for political support and economic subsidies from the Raj. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did not abandon this framework when he signed a series of friendship treaties with Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal during 1949-50 that preserved the essence of the special relationship structured under the Raj.

But India’s protectorate system quickly broke down amidst a number of factors. As the Kathmandu elite learnt to play the China card against Delhi, it undermined much of the 1950 treaty. The games that Sikkim’s Chogyal played with Delhi forced Indira Gandhi to integrate the kingdom into India. Bhutan has been a lot slower in asserting its national identity and creating an independent international personality. Until recently, it scrupulously avoided the balancing game between India and China. But the pressures to do so are clearly mounting.

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