President gets tumultuous welcome in Bhutan; second big visit in five months

Thimphu: For the second time in five months, Bhutan hosted an important visitor from India, as the dragon kingdom pulled out all stops to demonstrate its special ties with the country and warm feelings towards President Pranab Mukherjee. He has come here on a state visit that reinforces the "high importance" New Delhi attaches to this relationship.

The President's visit came within five months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's June 15-16, less than three weeks after assuming office in what was his maiden foreign visit as prime minister. It was, however, the first presidential visit from India to this country of fresh mountain air, pristine beauty and culturally proud people in over a quarter of a century.

Pranab MukherjeePranab Mukherjee

Although the President, in an interview to the national newspaper Kuensel, emphasised in response to a question that his visit "has no connection with Bhutan-China talks", that Beijing was an elephant in the room and its persistent attempts to leverage the talks to its strategic advantage that would be detrimental to India has been a point of concern for Indian policy makers.

Bhutan has no diplomatic ties with China but Beijing has been trying to put pressure on Thimphu for the last few years to allow it to open its mission in Thimphu, which the latter has been resisting.

That Bhutan considers its historic ties with India "special" needed no better affirmation than the surprise presence of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and Queen Jetsun Pema at the airport to receive President Mukherjee, bypassing protocol. Earlier, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was scheduled to receive the head of Indian state.

Mukherjee came Friday morning by a special Indian Air Force plane to Paro, from where he drove in a ceremonial carcade to Thimphu, a 56 km route that was lined by flag-waving schoolchildren, villagers and even lamas in traditional maroon-and-yellow robes while colourful flags and buntings representing the five elements decked the route along with large portraits of the President and the king.

At places along the route villagers brought out ceremonial offerings of fruits, flowers and incense in honour of the visiting dignitary, an honour reserved for only special guests to this country. Mukherjee, said aides, had a 40-year relationship with this country and has been held "in high esteem by its leadership and common people".

Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh described the people's turnout for President Mukherjee as "unprecedented".

Later, with cymbals, gongs, drums and trumpets, played by lamas in traditional gear, Mukherjee was formally welcomed by the king and the queen at the Tashichhodzong, the magnificent seat of Bhutan's government which also serves as the king's office besides housing a famous monastery.

A chipdrel procession of colourfully dressed dancers that is said to date back to antiquity escorted the President into the dzong, that has also served as a fortress against foreign invaders in the past.

The President is accompanied by several members of parliament, including BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who is expected to be sworn in as a minister on Sunday, Minister of State for Railways Manoj Sinha, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh and senior officials.

On a packed day, the President held 45-minute talks with the king where the security aspect of the relationship came up, officials said. King Jigme was quoted as saying that "Bhutan's security was interlinked with India and what happens in India affects Bhutan".

On record, officials sought to play down the China factor, saying it did not figure in the discussions, but several reports suggested that India has been worried about China's keenness to resolve its border dispute with Bhutan in order to gain strategic access to the Doklam plateau. In the event of hostilities, this can give China military ability to cut off India's only connection to its Northeast through the so-called "Chicken's Neck", a narrow strip of land that is also known as the Siliguri Corridor.

The President, who will return to Delhi Saturday afternoon, witnesses a special presentation on hydropower cooperation between the two countries. Hydropower is one of the main pillars of bilateral cooperation and three hydropower projects, built with Indian help, are already exporting electricity to power-starved Bihar.

In 2008, the two governments agreed to further develop a minimum of 10,000 MW of power generation capacities by 2020 and identified ten more projects. Power is an important sector of the Bhutanese economy and contributes 12 percent to its GDP. The foreign secretary said that "India would always be able to buy up the power that Bhutan generates".

An MoU was also signed between the two countries on Bhutan's support and participation in the revived Nalanda University in Bihar that will help "advance the concept of an Asian community" and help in re-establishing the institution as an international centre of excellence in this region.

Educational advancement and technology cooperation form other pillars of the multifacted ties between the two countries and MoUs were signed in these areas as well.

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