The goose-bump moment at Thimpu: the band of the Bhutan Royal Army playing “Jana Gana Mana” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was given the ceremonial guard of honour at the Taschichhodzong.
Pronounced tashi-cho-zong, what a spectacular setting this Buddhist monastery cum fortress built in 1216 was for the “B2B” initiative that the PM spoke of – Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat, he said. This is the seat of the Bhutan government and it houses the throne room as well. The backdrop for the handshake between the PM and King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk was a huge thongdrel, like a giant Tibetan thangkha. And when I say giant, I mean one that covers the side of a three-storey building. Exquisitely painted.
As we entered Thimpu, Indian and Bhutanese flags everywhere and pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. Sometimes mug shots or else pictures of the two shaking hands. Remember they met on May 26 for PM Modi’s swearing in. And two phrases, written everywhere in Bhutanese: “Welcome” and “Thank You”.
The PM landed at the Paro airport on a bright and windy Sunday morning. His counterpart Tshering Tobgay was there to greet him with a ceremonial silk scarf. A suddenly gust of wind and the scarf was whipped from Tobgay’s hands. Tobgay picked it up and handed it to Modi.
No big deal, really. But Bhutanese officials were a little embarrassed and wondered if Indian television channels could be requested not to show that windy shot over and over again. I don’t think anyone obliged. It was such a television moment.
Next television moment. Taschichhodzong. And the national anthems.
The next time the PM showed up, it was with the King. They stood before the thongrel and shook each other’s hand. Then Mr Modi gestured to the Bhutanese queen to join them; next up was Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. A photo-op, if there ever was one.
Journalists tried to make the most of it yet and urged the King and Mr Modi to address the media. But in vain.
Mr Modi spoke when there was almost no media to speak of. At the royal banquet. And he said a lot. “Khabi kabaar aisa padoshi mil jata hai ki aapke paas har prakar kay such shanti vaibhav hone ke baad bhi aap chain se jee nahi sakte,” he said. Roughly translated, “Sometimes, we get such neighbours that, even if you have peace and happiness, you cannot live peacefully.” This sent the media into a tizzy. Was Mr Modi referring to China or to Pakistan or both?
And Mr Modi claimed a little credit for India for Bhutan’s famous happiness quotient. “Bhutan jab apne happiness kay quotient ka mulyankan tarta hai, usme Bharat jaisa dost mahatwapurna dost ka maapdand hai.” In English, that is, “when Bhutan calculates its happiness quotient, having a friend in India is also a major factor.”
Most people in Thimpu speak and understand Hindi, but the ‘chalu’ variety. Mr Modi spoke shuddh Hindi at Bhutan’s Parliament on Monday and many of the nuances of what he said were lost. Most did not miss Mr Modi’s two faux pas: he once referred to Bhutan as Nepal and then again as Ladakh. But the Bhutanese are really too gracious to make a fuss about it.
However, a young woman Bhutanese journalist didn’t hesitate to tick me off for something I had said on air. I had said it because Indian Embassy officials told us about it: that apparently the Bhutanese do not clap to show appreciation. They clap to ward away evil spirits and, therefore, we should not clap after Mr Modi’s speech in Parliament or be surprised if no one else clapped. The Bhutanese journalist, sitting next to me in Parliament before Mr Modi’s speech said, “You misrepresented our culture. Of course we clap.” And, indeed, at the end of Mr Modi’s 25-minute speech, all the 72 MPs clapped. I was mortified!
On the streets of Thimpu, welcome warmth from the ordinary people.
And that Mr Modi had chosen Bhutan as his first foreign destination as India’s prime minister was an honour, they said. “After his huge election victory, Mr Modi could have chosen to go anywhere,” said Namkha, a young civil servant, “But he has honoured us by choosing Bhutan.”
“Mr Modi is seen as a person who walks the talk,” said Ugyen Wangmo, a businessman.
“He has promised Bhutan a lot. And we believe he will deliver in a time bound manner.”
Expectations from India and Narendra Modi are high. But then Bhutan recognizes India as a friend who is unlikely to let them down.