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A Himalayan challenge

The new Bhutan government has to walk a tightrope in matters of foreign policy and strike a balance between its two big neighbours India and China in tandem with its geo-strategic compulsions. Chiranjib Haldar writes.

india Updated: Jul 18, 2013 01:21 IST
Chiranjib Haldar
Chiranjib Haldar
Indo-Bhutan relations,bhutan government,PDP

Amid the hullabaloo over Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overtures towards India, we seem to have overlooked Bhutan’s decisive final round of polling held a few days ago.

The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 32 out of the 47 seats, driving home the point that the outgoing Jigme Thinley regime had hurt ties with India and failed to boost the nation’s gross national happiness. The outcome in Thimphu was keenly watched owing to Prime Minister Thinley’s warming up to China last year leaving India perturbed.

While the spurt in gas and fuel prices following India’s poll-eve withdrawal of subsidies hit the local populace, the elections this time were a tough challenge for the ruling regime to repeat its landslide win. Many pointed to the flowering of democracy in two new political parties — the Druk Nymrub Tshogpa (DNT) and Druck Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT) — though both were eliminated in the first round of polling.

The hustings boiled down to a straight contest between the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the opposition PDP. While Thimphu gets ready to swear-in a government for the second time, India’s subsidy rollback on the eve of polls did not enable DPT supremo Thinley to flaunt his patriotic credentials and gain electoral mileage.

The ruling DPT regime’s image had taken a beating after two of its ministers were convicted in a land scam. Compared to the DPT’s clean sweep in 2008, the electorate showed distinct signs of maturity this time.

Tshering Tobgay, a former civil servant heading the PDP, sharply criticised the Thinley government in the final days of the poll campaign for undermining Bhutan’s close historical ties with India.

So while Bhutan had miffed India after warming up to the Chinese premier in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, the poll-eve subsidy cut failed to fan any significant anti-Indian sentiment among the section hit the hardest.

During campaigning, the PDP candidates blamed the outgoing regime, saying India was only exercising its financial discretion to get even with the DPT for making overtures to China, a charge Thinley has denied.

On its part, New Delhi has also pointed to the nine visits undertaken by Thinley to India in his first tenure as prime minister after being anointed in 2008. However, the outcome clearly shows the arguments put forth by the PDP have cut ice with the masses in Bhutan.

The other inference from the PDP toppling the ruling DPT regime is that gross national happiness, an index Bhutan uses to measure the material and mental wealth of its citizens, as a measure of progress rather than the gross domestic product, has found favour only with some academics and intelligentsia but has not delivered better living conditions in Bhutan.

New Delhi and Thimphu have always shared a ‘special’ relationship enshrined in their treaty of friendship first signed in 1949 and revised in 2007. The revised treaty envisages both sides agreeing to ‘cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests’ instead of Bhutan being ‘guided’ by India ‘in regard to its external relations’.

The change in language reflects greater balance and neutrality. Bhutan has a long standing boundary dispute with China pertaining to the Kula Kongri peak in the north and Chumbi valley in the west, a matter of strategic concern for New Delhi, the latter being close to the Siliguri corridor connecting India’s North-East.

However, Bhutan’s historical ties to Tibet and its identity as a Buddhist nation make it chary about Chinese actions in Tibet, especially on the religious front.

There may be many Bhutanese whose romanticised vision of the last Shangri La clouded their perspective on the unromantic reality of politics and governance. Thus, Bhutan has to do a tightrope in matters of foreign policy — and strike a balance between its two big neighbours India and China in tandem with its geo-strategic compulsions.

As the curtains come down on Bhutan’s second general election, it is facing unique challenges across its borders and internally. The gradual shift of power from the palace to parliament has seen a paradigm shift in its ethos.

Can the newly-elected PDP emerge as a representative of the people or will it remain a proto-feudal representative of the elite?

Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on South Asian affairs.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 17, 2013 14:32 IST