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Bhutan’s royal retreat

'The king is gone, long live the King’ could well be the refrain in Bhutan after its first parliamentary elections marked a major step in its transition to a democratic, constitutional monarchy.

india Updated: Mar 25, 2008 22:28 IST

'The king is gone, long live the King’ could well be the refrain in Bhutan after its first parliamentary elections marked a major step in its transition to a democratic, constitutional monarchy. Both the parties in the poll fray were royalists who sought election expressly at the King’s behest. Even the voters seem to have cast their ballots only because the monarch wanted them to. So it is only of academic interest that the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa won a landslide 44 of the 47 seats in the lower house of Parliament.

The once-reclusive Buddhist kingdom has opened itself to the outside world over the last decade, allowing television and internet in 1999, and granting entry to more tourists. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk set the ball rolling in 2006 when he abdicated and left his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, to transfer power to an elected government. Elections for the upper house of Parliament were held last December. The greatest challenge for the new government will be to usher in democracy without upsetting the traditional values of this Buddhist society. So it is likely to continue the policies of the absolute monarchy it replaces, and maintain Bhutan’s measure of prosperity — the ‘gross national happiness’, based on the notion that material progress should be balanced with spiritual well-being. Bhutan has prospered under royal rule, with an average annual income twice that of India’s, and access to schools and hospitals for nearly all Bhutanese. This is more than can be said for states like Nepal and Bangladesh where democracy is yet to be defined.

New Delhi and Thimphu have long-standing bilateral ties based on trust and cooperation. The first generation of Bhutanese professionals were educated in India, and hospitals, schools, roads and major projects have opened up new horizons for land-locked Bhutan. It says a lot for the country that it’s on its way to achieving economic self-reliance barely four decades after opening its doors to the world. As its most important development partner, India has reason to rejoice.