If we didn’t have differences, we wouldn’t need SAARC: Tshering Tobgay


Bhutan and India’s ties are on an upswing with three high-level meetings in the past six months, including Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s visit to Delhi in May and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee’s visits to Thimphu subsequently. As Mr. Tobgay prepares to meet Mr. Modi again in Kathmandu at the SAARC summit on November 26 and 27, he spoke to Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu about bilateral ties as well as the need for SAARC to be a common forum to collaborate on. Edited text of interview:

Just a week away from the SAARC summit…what are your hopes and expectations from the summit in Kathmandu November 26-27?

First of all, this is my first summit, and I am very excited to be able to meet the leaders of all our member countries. It’s also exciting that we will meet so soon after meeting in Delhi, during PM Modi’s swearing-in. So although, SAARC hasn’t met for three years, since 2011 in the Maldives, one feels it hasn’t been so long because of the “mini-summit” thanks to Mr. Modi. At a regional level, it is significant just because it is taking place at all. SAARC is in its 30th year, and we are meeting for only the 18th time. We have to have more summits and more meaningful summits. I am very hopeful for the Kathmandu summit, especially since many of the heads of government attending are new. India’s PM Modi has made it very clear, both in word and in deed that the neighbourhood matters. And even though India-Pakistan talks didn’t take place as planned in August, I am very hopeful that this SAARC summit will be a milestone and a watershed moment in realizing the collective hopes of the region to integrate and prosper together. India is the heartland of SAARC, India must play a leadership role in that.

You sound upbeat, but in the past, leaders themselves have called it a “talk shop”. I ask specifically because in 2010, it was the Bhutan PM who had criticized members, India and Pakistan for allowing their “quarrels” to keep the region back?

PM Tobgay
PM Tobgay

Well lets look at it another way…if we did not have bilateral differences, we wouldn’t need a SAARC. The reason we need SAARC desperately to realize our collective potential is, because we have differences. This forum provides for us to go beyond individual differences and in doing so it provides us the platform to reconcile them. A case in point, this room we are sitting in, is historic, because [PM Manmohan Singh and Pakistan PM Gilani met in this room during SAARC 2010]. In 2002, 3 weeks after the parliament attack in India , PM Vajpayee and President Musharraf were shaking hands. This is possible because of SAARC. Imagine if there was no SAARC, we don’t know what might have happened. EU has differences, ASEAN members have differences, in our countries also, member states will have differences. We need SAARC, a common forum to collaborate on. At the minimum it is a safe political stage for them to meet.

But how does Bhutan and other countries feel about the fact that every SAARC summit is overshadowed by India-Pakistan headlines?

Well this is a reality we can’t run away from. If certain issues affect more people, they must take centre-stage. Yes, so many SAARC summits have been dominated by political differences between [India and Pakistan]. That’s no reason to give up. India has already demonstrated its commitment, when PM Modi invited the heads of government to visit, and they all accepted at very short notice. That’s not something a ‘talk shop’ would do. 30 years later, all is not lost. SAARC still exists. We are meeting in Kathmandu, lets see if there is a breakthrough. These three agreements (on energy cooperation, railways, motor vehicles travel) will be a breakthrough if they are signed, and there may be a bigger one. And we will work towards the next summit if not.

Are you worried about PM Modi and PM Sharif not talking there?

From what I saw in New Delhi, I am not worried. Both PMs are world leaders, and when they meet, I am optimistic that good things are possible.

On India-Bhutan ties, it is unprecedented to have had two highest-level bilaterals in 4 months, with both PM Modi and President Mukherjee visiting Thimphu….why do you think it happened?

It is unprecedented, but shows that the level of our cooperation, understanding and trust is also unprecedented.

President Mukherjee said that the securities of both countries are “inextricably linked”. Does India suggest that it will enhance that security?

Our security concerns are intertwined. The cooperation we enjoy right now… there is no reason to review or revise or increase that. There is absolutely no cause for concern. I will answer the question you have not asked but want to….there is a theory that India’s leaders are visiting Bhutan in quick succession, and PM Modi made Bhutan his maiden foreign visit destination because the government is concerned about Bhutan’s security I say, nonsense. Our friendship is deep and this is a celebration of it. These are nonsense theories.

You’re saying this is not linked to China? That China is not a factor in India-Bhutan relations? I ask because reports suggest the Seema Sashatra Bal is planning a series of helipads along the border with Bhutan, so as to boost security, amid other reports of incursions over the Bhutan China boundary….would you comment on those?

China is a factor in India-Bhutan relations in so much as it is a neighbor for both countries. Bhutan has an unresolved border with China. We need to resolve it. And the boundary issue is very important. We have had discussions, 22 rounds of them since 1984, including this year. We have to be extremely careful because this is about our sovereignty, territory that is precious for a small country. Right now, the discussions are going very well with the Chinese. Each bilateral discussions are done carefully, and the negotiations based on the 1988 guiding principles and 1998 agreement for maintenance of peace. Where there have been issues, we have raised them. I have read those reports you refer to, but I have no information on either.

Finally, is democracy in Bhutan irreversible? You have just completed a year in office, and you came in with some high expectations

Well, we have started delivering on some of our promises on paying government employees, on employment, on electricity. We have used this first year well. Is democracy irreversible? Lets ask a simpler question: if people are unhappy, will they be willing to change governments. They did, when they voted us in. We went from 2 seats in the opposition to 32 (out of 47 seats). People do miss the direct involvement of his majesty the King in day to day administration. But his majesty the King himself insists that democracy must succeed in Bhutan.

Courtesy: The Hindu