Tashichho Dzong, a fortress that serves both as a government department and Buddhist monastery in Thimphu, Bhutan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

National Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Bhutan on September 15 and October 18, and the Himalayan kingdom’s relations with India will be an important issue where India must exercise caution, according to an August 20 commentary in the Indian daily The Hindu.

Bhutan, which has been heavily dependent on India for decades, has become increasingly concerned about its sovereignty.

In April last year, Bhutanese authorities removed a board which read “Dantak welcomes you to Bhutan” at the country’s international airport.

The Indian Border Roads Organization helps build roads under what’s called Project Dantak. The Hindu also pointed out that another board that credited “the Government of India” for the construction of the highway from the capital Thimphu to Phuentsholing on the Indian border in the south had been painted over.

Bhutan, once an absolute monarchy, held its first National Assembly elections in December 2007 and March 2008, followed by a second round of elections in May and July 2013.

The third, upcoming election will follow the same pattern: first a general election with several political parties, after which the parties with the highest vote tallies progress to the second round.

The prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, had to resign on August 9 to give way to an interim government which will rule until after the elections.

Regardless of which party wins those elections, the biggest issue the next government would have to deal with will remain relations with India – and China, which in recent years has been making overtures to Bhutan.

Hence the need for India to be cautious, according to The Hindu. In July this year, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Bhutan, a country with which Beijing does not yet have official diplomatic relations.

Contacts so far have been maintained mainly through bilateral talks about the border, but it’s probably only a matter of time before full diplomatic relations are established.

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