Bolstering India’s economic and securities ties with Bhutan and Bangladesh

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With 60 countries going for elections this year, 2024 happens to be a unique year that will replicate itself only once in more than two decades. The list includes both India, the biggest, and the US, the oldest democracies. Incidentally, the same list also includes our neighbours Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The election results in both these countries are nothing short of music to our ears as India gears up for its crucial journey to become the third largest economy in the world.

To have pro-India governments in the immediate vicinity is of paramount importance for our economy. More so, after the Maldives turn-around. The slippery, and hopefully temporary, loss in the waters of Indian Ocean needs to be compensated with a more rigid and permanent gain between the Himalayas and the plains on either side of the crucial chicken’s neck called the Siliguri Corridor. The Siliguri Corridor continues to be our vulnerability, with the strategic depth on its either side being provided by Bhutan and Bangladesh. Therefore, to have friends on both ends of the corridor is of unparalleled significance to India.

The B-2 (Bhutan and Bangladesh) neighbours not only cater to the conventional and hybrid warfare requirement against our hostile northern neighbour, but are also significant for the economic development of our northeast. The tackling of the Doklam crisis and the curtailment of insurgency in the northeast would not have been possible but for the India-friendly governments in Bhutan and Bangladesh.

While Sheikh Hasina is a better known personality, her newly elected counterpart in Bhutan, Tshering Tobgay also needs no introduction. In fact, he was the Prime Minister during the Doklam crisis in 2017 but he had lost the elections in 2018. He is the son of an ex-Royal Bhutan Army soldier and a mother who physically contributed in the construction of the first road in Bhutan. The return of the Harvard graduate to power in the recently concluded election is indeed a positive development.

Readers may remember that Bhutan’s trial with the new democratic norms in 2008 were certainly not without creating some ripples of discomfort for India, with the first government showing a tilt towards China. It was only during Tobgay’s first stint as Prime Minister that the bilateral ties returned to normal and got bolstered further.

Both these leaders have to fulfil their promised agenda of economic revival of their countries. With the Indian economy already on the right track, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of a ‘Vikasit Bharat @2047’ can become a reality only through a ‘Vikasit Northeast’. Both these neighbours would have a significant role in helping us achieve this goal. In fact, a BIB (Bhutan-India-Bangladesh) alliance wherein India basically implies the northeastern states, can really become a game-changing economic alliance. There exists direct physical road connectivity between the three countries extending up to ports, a geo-economic rarity in the region.

Efforts earlier were made through the BIBN (Bhutan-India-Bangladesh-Nepal) Motor Vehicle Agreement, 2015, to allow free movement of motor vehicles carrying goods without change of transport at the borders. However, it met with some scepticism due to major differences in the size of the economies. Hence the solution lies in restricting the alliance primarily to northeastern states of India so as to give a semblance of parity.

Now that Bhutan has already started developing Gelephu as a major city where an airport was recently inaugurated, the direct and shortest BIB air corridor has become a reality. The existing Trongsa-Gelephu hydel power axis of Bhutan can be extended up to Bangladesh’s ports through Assam. Our northeastern states by themselves are of significant size and potential to have a viable economic alliance. Of course, necessary support from the rest of India can be made available, whenever required.

The time has come to look at our northeast region as one common economic BIB entity and develop it as an integrated region. A Vikasit BIB will definitely ensure a Vikasit Bharat @2047.

The author, Brig. PKG Mishra (Retd) headed Border Roads Organisation’s Project Dantak in Bhutan from 2015 to 2018 when the Doklam crisis took place. This story has been republished from The Week magazine.

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