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Now that the damage from recent missteps is undone, Delhi must tread more carefully with Bhutan
India has done well to convey its decision to restore the supply of subsidised gas to Bhutan to new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay's government. Looking back, it is still not clear why the unseemly friction between the two nations was set in motion in the first place. Both the earlier decision to withdraw the subsidy of Rs 50 crore — part of a Rs 3,500 crore assistance package — and its timing were a diplomatic faux pas for New Delhi. It ended up looking callous and insensitive at a time of transition for the Himalayan country, and reportedly touched off public outrage.
But diplomacy is also about managing or mitigating damage after it is done. And fortunately, not much time has lapsed between the two decisions in this case. But going ahead, as it makes its next diplomatic moves, Delhi would do well to be mindful of the concerns and aspirations in Bhutan in a time of change. India has traditionally had a large footprint in Bhutan, which has also been almost exclusive till now. However, as Bhutan's overtures to China over the last few years have shown, the diplomatic distance between Thimphu and Beijing will inevitably close in the near future. Delhi has to accept this even as it looks to maintain the goodwill it enjoys among the Bhutanese people. Economic assistance and the hydropower plants which India constructs and then imports electricity from are just two attributes of that relationship.
Given that the kingdom is transitioning to democratic governance, having just elected its second representative government in an election that saw the defeat of the incumbent, Delhi will have to increasingly make its conduct of diplomacy towards the nation more transparent. Thimphu's new government has a political platform that emphasises "rebuilding" relations with India and it presides over a $1.8 billion economy that is growing fast and may soon open up to the world. These factors should preclude hasty foreign policy decisions that could end up forcing Delhi on to the backfoot again.
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