Many observers in India were surprised by the result of the primary round of Bhutan’s third National Assembly election last month: the ruling People’s Democratic Party failed to make it to this month’s run-off.

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, a new party led by a surgeon, secured the most votes followed by the incumbent opposition Druk Phuenseum Tshogpa. They will now contest the run-off, called the general round, on October 18.

It appears three sections of the Indian establishment – media, military and South Block’s Bhutan watchers – have been paying close attention to the election. While the media continues to spread unfounded panic about the imminent regime change, the military, going by a number of retired army generals’ remarks, seems worried and testy.

Bhutan’s constitution allows any number of registered political parties to contest the primary round and four did this time. The top two parties by vote share enter the general round. The winner forms the government while the loser becomes the opposition.

Suspicious India

Several Indian news outlets covered the result of the primary round. They interviewed retired army officers, diplomats, scholars and commentators. From these loose discussions, a couple of metanarratives emerged. First, India misunderstands and despises its neighbours. Second, India does not trust even its best friend in the region.

In a talk show on Rajya Sabha TV, Ravi Arora, a retired major general who edits the Indian Military Review, sounded belligerent towards Bhutan. Using a military parlance, he said “we are not getting the bang for our buck”. He said whichever party came to power in Bhutan “will do well to keep in mind Bhutan’s dependency on India”. He expressed disappointment over unsatisfactory returns on India’s investment in Bhutan: “We underwrite much of their economy and their central bank is supported by us, but what do we get in return?”

This reminded me of a passage from David M Malone’s Does The Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy in which he recounts a senior member of India’s security and foreign policy establishment telling him that India’s neighbours are mere “thugs and crooks”. Arora made a similar claim on live TV. He seemed to think of Bhutan as an untrustworthy crook of a nation where “Indians are hassled…prevented from entering frequently...prevented from carrying out business freely”. It is a view singularly unfounded and misleading.

Many top Indian diplomats and military officials seem out of their depths when it comes to understanding their country’s relationship with Bhutan. They expect a “subservient and indebted” Bhutan to shoulder the burden of India’s security concerns even at the cost of an existential threat. Bhutan did exactly that during the Doklam standoff between India and China in 2017. Bhutan silently stood the ground and stayed in close contact with India until China eventually pulled out from the contested area. Many South Block insiders give full credit to Bhutan for the Doklam resolution.

Investing in trust

Bhutan has always been India’s most trusted ally in South Asia and has often put India’s security at the forefront. Come to think of it, in December 2003, Bhutan’s fourth king personally led the army to throw out Indian militants living in Bhutan’s jungles. Bhutan was also the only South Asian country besides India not to attend China’s Belt and Road Initiative forum in May 2017. In other words, Bhutan has held its end of the bargain.

Malone, who served as Canada’s high commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan from 2006 to 2008, observes that since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1968, “the essential bargain between India and Bhutan involved considerable Indian assistance in exchange for Bhutanese deference to India’s foreign policy and defence concerns, notable as related to China”.

Unsurprisingly then, belligerent messages from Indian officials only serve to anger the Bhutanese who are now openly questioning India’s level of trust in its so-called best friend. Indian officials who claim the Chinese influence is increasing in Bhutan are wrong. Bhutan’s contact with China remain the same, mainly to discuss the border issues. Bhutan, in fact, has never been tempted by the Chinese offers of development and technical assistance.

What India gives Bhutan in development aid is there for all to see, but what Bhutan offers India in strategic benefit, as a buffer along the northern border, cannot be put in figures. Indeed, those in the corridors of power in Delhi do understand that Bhutan has saved India billions of rupees in defence spending.

Yet, India has not invested in Bhutan and other smaller neighbours that modicum of trust which is critical in building genuine goodwill. This means not only increasing people-to-people contact but also being sensitive to Bhutan’s desire for a wider engagement beyond India’s borders. This means respecting Bhutan as an equal, sovereign nation state.

Mutual existence

It was Jawaharlal Nehru who set the tone for the India-Bhutan relationship. Though often seen as the architect of India’s failed China policy, Nehru seemed to have understood the importance of Bhutan for India’s political future. Arriving in Bhutan a year before China put Tibet under its direct rule in 1959, he wooed the Bhutanese with this famous line: “Freedom of both Bhutan and India should be safeguarded so that none from outside can do harm to it.”

The sentiment echoes even today and Bhutan continues to dodge China’s courtship for formal diplomatic relations and a residential embassy in Thimphu. Bhutan’s leaders and policymakers are cautious about speaking openly about China.

Recently, India’s former ambassador to Nepal, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, said Bhutan was a time-tested friend and India must continue to work closely with whoever comes to power after the October election. “Our actions emanating from our Bhutan policy must be consistent and responsive to Bhutan’s own sensitivities,” he said.

In a similar vein, the Bhutanese government won’t hurt the sentiments of its best friend. Indeed, considering the changing geopolitical climate in South Asia, where anti-India sentiment seems to have increased sharply in recent times, Bhutan has stood steadfast in its dedication to the big neighbour and its geopolitical concerns.

Bhutan’s leadership regards the Indo-Bhutan friendship as one “built on shared values and aspirations, trust and mutual respect, and a common dream of peace and prosperity for the people of the two countries”. This means Bhutan’s foreign policy framework, which holds the relationship with India as being integral to its national interest, will not change no matter which party takes power in Thimphu next month.

Gopilal Acharya is a journalist based in Thimphu. He runs an independent current affairs blog, The Talking Hills.