In the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a political change is afoot. And India is keeping a close watch as Bhutan prepares for a change of government next month.
Bilateral ties have been robust with a pro-India government in place in Thimphu over the last five years. But with Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay suffering a shock defeat—his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) slid to third place in the primary round of polling held on Saturday for the 47-member National Assembly—New Delhi has reason to worry.
Some Indian observers Strategic News International spoke to maintained that implicit in Tobgay’s loss is “a vote against a pro-India policy”. Referring to the tiny but strategically located Bhutan being caught right in the middle of the 73-day troop face-off between India and China at Doklam last year, they said that despite efforts by the Tobgay government to downplay the incursion by Chinese troops, it had a bearing on the poll outcome.
Others, however, do not agree. It’s early days yet and the final outcome should be awaited, they say, adding that New Delhi will ensure that its interests are protected regardless of whichever party comes to power.
Furthermore, they also note that Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, seen as pro-India, remains a key figure in determining the course of India-Bhutan relations and that he has a huge say in the direction his country’s foreign policy takes.
With New Delhi and Beijing in a tussle to increase their influence over the Himalayan nation, Bhutan has been walking a difficult diplomatic path between the two in recent years. This, even though Thimphu does not have formal diplomatic ties with Beijing.
New Delhi has been active in its outreach to both the King, who was the chief guest at the 64th Republic Day celebrations in 2013 and is a frequent visitor to India, as well as the Tobgay government.
However, it remains wary of Beijing’s moves in Bhutan. In July, Chinese vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou was in Bhutan and the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohiu, too flew down to Thimphu to join the delegation. There have also been numerous other visits by Chinese officials to this once isolated nation that prides itself on its Gross National Happiness index— described as a holistic and sustainable approach to development.
Among the four parties in the fray in the first round of polling last week, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) has emerged on top with 92,722 votes. A close second is the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) with 90,020 votes which is also the Opposition party in the outgoing Assembly.
In only the third election to the National Assembly since 2008, a total of 291,098 votes were cast in the primary round. Elections to the National Assembly were held for the first time in 2008 after then King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ceded absolute power in favour of parliamentary democracy.
The second and final round of contest for leading the government in Thimphu, scheduled for October 18, will now be held between the DNT and DPT, with the new government expected to be in place by October-end.
DNT was founded during Bhutan’s second elections in 2013 and is led by Dr Lotay Tshering, a surgeon-turned-politician. The DPT, in turn, has been around for longer, having been founded in 2007 and in power from 2008 to 2013 with Jigme Thinley as PM. He was seen as China-leaning and relations between New Delhi and Thimphu were uneasy and suffered from a trust deficit during his tenure.
For instance, Thinley met then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the margins of the UN Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. This had set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi.
Further, angry with the Thinley government’s Chinese tango, New Delhi had withdrawn the cooking gas and kerosene subsidies it gives to the landlocked nation in 2013 in the middle of the country’s elections. The shortage, many believed, contributed to Thinley’s defeat in the 2013 polls.
As for the DNT, the 2018 primary round results mark a huge step in its political evolution. The party had not even made it past the primary round in the National Assembly elections in 2013.
Having emerged at the head of the pack this time around, Dr Tshering in a Facebook post drew attention to some of the campaign issues of his party. “It has dawned on us even more that the time has come for us to work together towards Narrowing the Gap and that prioritising health of every Bhutanese meets the wishes of the people,” he stated.
Seeking his countrymen’s blessings, Dr Tshering also urged them “to join us on the journey that will be the beginning of new times, where poor are uplifted, health services reach the people and communities reunited irrespective of political affiliations”.
The Bhutanese newspaper, ‘Kuensel’, reported him as saying that he paid Nu 6.2 million to the government to resign from the civil service and join politics. “If it was not for my passion and urge to serve the country at a different level, I would not have resigned by paying such a big amount,” he said.
The DPT, fortunately for India, is no longer led by Thinley. Instead, the party is helmed by Pema Gyamtsho who was also the Opposition leader in the outgoing National Assembly.
His party’s election manifesto under the sub-head ‘Foreign relations: Holding our place in the world’ notes that Bhutan’s foreign policy “will always be guided by our enlightened Monarchs”. The party will remain committed “to maintaining and furthering the excellent relations with the people and the Government of India; carry forward the exemplary and mutually beneficial cooperation that is the hallmark of our relations and deepen our economic ties”
A little over four weeks from now, Bhutan will have a new government in place. And India will be hoping Thimphu keeps its interests in mind, and not sway to the tune of the Red Dragon.