Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first foreign visit to Bhutan has been rather well received. The visit to our smallest and friendliest neighbour carried with it the suggestion of a wider focus: India's 4,200 km border with China. Unfortunately there seems to be little of substance in what Modi said, making this visit merely a cautious continuation of old policies, when what is needed as a bold re-imagination of the historic relationship.

What Bhutan Wants

Modi's speech to the joint session of Bhutan's Parliament on Monday reportedly impressed many in the Himalayan nation because of his affirmations of friendship and his humility. However, it lacked any acknowledgement of the massive changes that have occurred in Bhutan and the world since 1958, when Jawaharlal Nehru first established the great friendship between the two nations.

Today, Bhutan has carved out a space for itself on the world stage, so much so that the UN created a Happiness Day on the basis of Bhutan’s well-marketed Gross National Happiness development strategy, which purports to build an economy shaped by, and in service of, Bhutanese culture.

China is no longer as scary as it was, and the unstated understanding between India and Bhutan, that Bhutan should have no diplomatic relations with any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, especially China, may not serve its interests so well.

While Bhutan continues to receive grants, loans and aid from India, its per capita GDP is more than $2,100, substantially higher than India’s $1,600. Bhutan sells the electricity from its hydroelectric dams (which India has helped build) at less than a third of the price that state governments in India charge Indian citizens.

Had Indian statements reflected Bhutanese concerns and aspirations, they might have spoken of Bhutan’s aspirations to be an international actor, and how they fit in with the Indian vision for South Asia and the world. They might have spoken about managing Bhutan’s economic fundamentals while overseeing the construction of hydroelectric dams so that Bhutan does not have to suffer a repeat of the economic crisis it had last year. They might have talked about a common approach to job creation and skill-building, a challenge for both India and Bhutan. They might have addressed the issue of trade corridor to Bangladesh, benefiting both of our friendly neighbours. They might have addressed the small unnecessary irritants such as the Indian troops still stationed in the Haa fortress – an old Bhutanese stronghold which in 1963 was turned over to Indian army to be used as a camp.

A Tale of Two Speeches

In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru took an arduous trek, much of it on horseback, and some on yak-back, from Sikkim to Bhutan. The People’s Republic of China had taken over Tibet in 1949, and nine years later the repression of the Tibetans by the Chinese had led to massive resentment. The Dalai Lama had asked for Nehru’s backing during his trip to India in 1956, and both Bhutan and India were worried about further aggression, especially as Mao Tse Tung claimed Bhutan, Sikkim, Tawang (in Arunachal Pradesh) as part of Tibet, and "historic" China.

The historic nature of the visit was not because of how difficult it was to travel to Paro, which had no tarred roads at that time, but because Nehru and the third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, shared a strategic vision of India and Bhutan working in cooperation. They shared such a close understanding that when the official translator had difficulty with Nehru’s speech, the Third King took over the role, an enormous sign of respect. Nehru stated, “Our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your will.”

Bhutan voluntarily became part of the Indian strategic sphere, allowing the stationing of Indian troops, primarily through the Indian Military Training Team, responsible for training Bhutan’s first standing army, and the Border Roads Organisation, which built the kingdom's first roads.

There is a certain continuity from that speech to what Modi said this time around in Bhutan, during his address to the joint sitting of Bhutan’s bicameral Parliament. He talked of B4B, “Bharat for Bhutan, and Bhutan for Bharat”, he promised the continuation of excellent relations, and stated that a strong India was in the interest of Bhutan and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

He promised help from Indian satellites, and to build a network of e-libraries in all of Bhutan’s twenty dzhonkhags (districts). He spoke of how terrorism divides but tourism unites and that Bhutan’s tourism potential is huge. Modi spoke in Hindi and the official translator struggled. This time, though, no head of state stepped in to translate.

Nehru’s 1958 visit was historic because he expressed India’s wish to listen and support, not merely to tell, direct and grant. And while the Bhutanese may have been impressed by Narendra Modi’s speech, enough to ignore the flub when he confused Bhutan’s name with Nepal’s, it lacked the substance that might have made it a worthy successor to Nehru’s.

Omair Ahmad is the author of The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan