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India PM to make maiden overseas trip to Bhutan

Publication Date : 14-06-2014


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Bhutan tomorrow on  his maiden overseas visit to reaffirm ties with India's friendliest neighbour and key buffer state, with an eye on  fast-tracking cooperation in the power sector.

As energy-hungry India swelters through another  summer with electricity in short supply, Modi is likely to be looking at how to expedite the building of seven joint hydroelectric projects - four of which are still in the initial planning stages - to boost India's electricity supplies for the future.

In collaboration with India, the tiny Himalayan kingdom aims to generate 10,000 megawatts of power in the next seven years, up from 1,500 megawatts now, with most of it exported to India.

"The hydropower cooperation between India and Bhutan is a classic case of a win-win cooperation," said Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh. "The hydropower projects generate export revenues for Bhutan... and provide clean and low-cost electricity to India."

She described Modi's two-day visit as a "goodwill visit" where all bilateral issues would be discussed.

The choice of a neighbour for Modi's first visit is also being seen as a continuation of the new Prime Minister's strong regional push. Japan  had been keen to host the Indian Prime Minister on his maiden visit.

Modi, who came to power on a decisive mandate, has made improving India's ties with countries in the neighbourhood a top foreign policy priority.

In a break from tradition, Modi invited regional leaders for the first time to his swearing-in ceremony.

Then, on his first day in office, he held bilateral talks with the leaders, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

 In a letter to Sharif released yesterday, Modi said he hoped to "chart a new course" in bilateral ties.

While the choice of Bhutan is seen to be the safest  for Modi in South Asia, Singh said that it was aimed at showing how India wanted to promote ties with a key ally.

The Bhutan-India cooperation, particularly in hydropower, is seen as an example for the rest of South Asia.

Another neighbour  Nepal, which also has hydropower capacity,  has been unable to capitalise on the requirements of power- hungry India and, as a result, has denied itself an opportunity to follow Bhutan's example of using power sales to build one of the highest per capita incomes in South Asia.

 "Bhutan is one of our most important and strategic partners and it is a very good country to show our policy of good neighbourliness in South Asia," said Singh.

 Bhutan is also a key buffer state.

The earlier Bhutanese government had been looking to China for further expansion of its power sector. But current Prime Minister Tshering Topgay has been keen to assure India that Bhutan is not looking to China, which  has been increasing its influence in India's neighbourhood.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj  has also chosen a neighbour, Bangladesh, for her first overseas visit, likely to be on June 25.

Analysts applauded the move to engage the neighbourhood by Modi, who is also being wooed by China, the United States and Japan.

"I think that is very important - cooperating with other South Asian countries appears to be high on his agenda," said Lydia Powell from the Delhi- based think-tank, Observer Research Foundation. "It is a good thing. What is the point in making friends across the ocean when you have enemies all round?

"I think Bhutan is a good place to start as it's the only country with which we have had consistently good relations."

During his two-day visit, Modi will address Bhutan's national assembly,  meet King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and hold talks with Bhutan's Prime Minister.

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