Bhutan exemplifies the ideal of South Asian cooperation
Republic Day on January 26 brought the King of Bhutan to New Delhi as chief guest at the traditional celebration. His presence underlined the high value New Delhi places on its ties with its Himalayan neighbour. In many ways, this is an exemplary relationship.Modern Bhutan's development story was encouraged and underwritten by Jawaharlal Nehru, and since that beginning Bhutan has advanced steadily. It has charted its own course and successfully worked out its individual style of development. A striking feature of its priorities is the importance attached to environmental factors.
From the early days, when other parts of the world, including neighbouring India, were doing what they could to exploit nature with little regard for the consequences, Bhutan was guided by the need to conserve and protect. Its pristine forests were harvested only to sustainable limits, its many rivers and streams remained clean, and it became a byword for environmentally sensitive development.
This did not mean that it was forced to lag behind others: on the contrary, intelligent utilisation of its natural endowment enabled it to advance even faster than comparable mountain regions nearby.
Its water resources have been harnessed for the production of electricity used both for development at home and for sale to the ever-hungry Indian market. No major dams and diversion canals have been permitted, such as those that have become controversial elsewhere in the Himalayan region. Bhutan has chosen run-of-the-river schemes with minimum environmental impact, and the successful running of these enterprises has transformed the lives of its people. Per capita income in Bhutan is second in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region only to that of tourism-driven Maldives, ahead of India and all the others. It is a proud achievement.
Even more impressive is the simultaneous political transformation that has taken place. Where other hereditary rulers have laboured to cling to power, Bhutan's monarchy has systematically divested itself of authority and has successfully reconstituted the country as a parliamentary democracy.
That the pressure for change came not from below but from the monarch himself adds to the magnitude of the achievement. Through this entire period of enormous change, relations between India and Bhutan have remained close, and each side has been able to respond to the imperative requirements of the other.
Elsewhere in the region, relations between India and its neighbours present a different picture. Ties with Pakistan remain fraught, as was seen in the recent flare-up on the Kashmir line of control, and in present circumstances there can be little expectation of real progress.
Dialogue between the two countries has been going on for several years to no great effect, and only mild encouragement can be taken from the fact that, despite the recent setback, both have decided to remain engaged and keep trying for at least a modicum of forward movement. Ties with Pakistan have a particular history and are uneasy at the best of times, but there seems no special reason for the current stasis, or even downturn, elsewhere.
Nepal is another Himalayan country with enormous hydro-electric potential that could both transform its development prospects at home and become an indispensable source of power supply for India. There have been a number of serious efforts in this direction, and fresh efforts are in train, but despite occasional hopeful signs no substantial mutually beneficial projects have actually been built.
Meanwhile, Nepal has to look to India for occasional power supplies to meet its needs. Both countries have been losers from their inability to reach satisfactory agreement in this crucial sector.
Nor is there any real reason why ties with Bangladesh should be in the doldrums. Not so long ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka, it seemed that a new level of relations was on the verge of being achieved. However, this was stymied by West Bengal, which felt its concerns had not been fully addressed. Since then, little progress has been made in trying to eliminate differences and bring back the promise in the relationship.
With Sri Lanka there are some specific problems that have complicated bilateral ties and have become difficult to address owing to their bearing on internal Indian affairs; but nevertheless these issues cannot be left unattended.
And what can be said of relations with the Maldives, tiny and historically friendly to India, where a commercial dispute involving an Indian company has become a real impediment to good relations.
While misunderstandings and disputes proliferate, a broader, more inclusive vision for the future of South Asia has also been finding expression. Only a few days ago, the Kathmandu-based journal Himal re-launched itself as a new-look quarterly. There are many thoughtful articles in the journal from a notable group of authors, and what comes through clearly is the high expectations of India among its neighbours.
Whether it is a matter of civilisational values, or democratic practice, or economic progress, India's active engagement in South Asian affairs is indispensable. While acknowledging this reality, several of the contributors express scepticism about India's willingness to accept the role that others would wish it to take.
Despite the many shared values among the countries of South Asia, they are divided into national entities that do not always have much to do with each other. Transcending these divisions and reaffirming the underlying unity of the region is what has been a central purpose of SAARC, and to give substance to this aspiration is the major regional challenge.
For India, it is desirable to see regional processes from a further point of view. In the last few years, India has emerged as an increasingly weighty factor in Asia-wide strategic considerations. Its ineluctable interests drive it to closer engagement in areas more distant than the immediate neighbourhood alone, and commercial, maritime, economic, defence and other considerations drive it ever further afield.
Central and Southeast Asia are no longer remote regions, and the intensity of India's association with them is on the increase. Within these regions, too, there is the sense that India has much to contribute, so enhanced Indian interest in their affairs is welcomed.
This more active role does not fit well with the multiplicity of divisive issues between India and its immediate neighbours. Tranquil and cooperative relations with them would open the way to greater regional cooperation and facilitate a more active diplomacy for India. Thus building the kind of open, accessible South Asia advocated by Himal and others is both good in itself and can be regarded as a step towards the larger international role that India must now adopt.
Salman Haidar is a former foreign secretary of India.