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Bullying neighbours

A bully is the one who makes himself a terror to the weak or makes them feel defenceless. The bully, the dictionary says, could also be a blustering gallant, a swashbuckler, especially a person (or animal) who makes himself or herself a terror. That said, is the Indian government acting as some kind of a bully when it comes to its dealings with neighbors like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and now Bhutan.
Not to mention the country’s dented relations with Pakistan (separated at birth), Bangladesh or Myanmar. Never mind the gloss that the Indian Foreign Ministry puts on India’s neighborhood policy, the truth is that none of our neighbors can tell for sure the exact standing of our relations with each of these nations, big or small.
How can one forget our relations with the “only Hindu kingdom in the world”- that’s how the northern neighboring country (Nepal) was usually referred to by the Indian Hindu rightists. One of our Ambassadors to Kathmandu, Mr. Shriman Narayan, a Congress leader of some standing at the time, made it his business to fall at the feet of King Mahendra, as a mark of obeisance to the King, considered an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
I remember his successor, a former Union Minister, Mr. Raj Bahadur trying to “live down the shame” of an Indian Ambassador touching the King’s feet. And yet such obeisance hardly made any difference to Mahendra’s distrust of India. The King had his own irons in the fire with some of his kin having developed a taste for the fast buck which inevitably led them into several odd businesses, smuggling prime among these.
The Maldivian fiasco is too fresh to be retold here except that it marked a new low in how not to conduct business with a small partner. To be friends, particularly with neighbors, is a time-tested foreign policy goal but not friendship of a kind that borders on patronizing. Not in this age and time, not when your regional interests are at stake.
The anger with Bhutan became apparent when the landlocked mountain country was seen by New Delhi trying to spread its wings, as it were. The Bhutanese were stated to have developed an interest in accepting Chinese blandishments. This was read by South Block as an attempt on the part of Bhutan to develop an independent relationship with Beijing. True, Bhutan it was the understanding, would keep away from developing diplomatic contacts, particularly with the Big Five; New Delhi has virtually been handling the country’s foreign relations.
In return New Delhi invested substantially in the development of the little kingdom. Typically of the Foreign Office, Bhutan came to be treated less as a friend and more a dependent. So when the first stirrings of a longing to be seen as a free, independent nation (which it has in fact been for more than 100 years) the Indian mandarins reacted rather sharply.
Bhutan was told not to involve itself with the neighbor to the north and simultaneously strings came to be attached to Indian aid. The upshot has been that with the democratization of the country by the King-the latest elections to the country’s parliament concluded this past Saturday with the People’s Democratic Party replacing the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa by a wide margin. The Indians had by then threatened to pull out of most of the hydro-electric projects sponsored by them and to withdraw the subsidies on gas and kerosene. The hydel projects, were to earn Bhutan some revenue as well, since India was only too willing to buy the spare power.
The prospect of India withdrawing gas and oil subsidies apparently caused great resentment among the Bhutanese and this was made known to a penny-pinching New Delhi which, even as it has withdrawn some of the subsides domestically does not care when it comes to offering billions to corporates like the Reliance, nearly doubling the price of gas obtained from RIL from the Kauvery basin.
Tshering Tobgay, the PDP leader who will be Bhutan’s Prime Minister soon, did during the poll campaign refer to the strain on Indi-Bhutan relations without blaming New Delhi directly for the fault lines that have appeared in bilateral relations; instead he accused the defeated DPT of having promoted the withdrawal of subsidy on LPG and kerosene.
Some inspired leaks by the Foreign Ministry this past fortnight, however, point to a certain cussedness on the part of policy-makers; the effort apparently being to ask Bhutan to see which side of its bread is buttered and by whom. This is a classic example of the Big Brother complex which marked Indian policy-makers attitude some decades ago when it came to managing relations with smaller neighbors. Over the years, Panchsheel notwithstanding, this policy has soured our relations with most of the neighbors already.
Time perhaps to take a fresh look at our neighborhood. For a government that can hardly be accused of being frugal, the penny-pinching in Bhutan seems most unbecoming. China has already made deep inroads into Nepal and Bhutan is just a stone’s throw away from Nepal. China’s track record bears strong enough evidence of its capacity and its ability to step in wherever a vacuum exists. You have only to look at Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and, of course, Pakistan to see how effective Beijing can be when it chooses to make its presence felt.

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