GOVERNING BHUTAN

Lotay Tshering: Tough Challenges Lie Ahead For Bhutan’s New PM

Parul Chandra New Delhi, India 5 November 2018

On Wednesday, when the new Prime Minister of Bhutan Dr Lotay Tshering and his Cabinet members receive the dakyen, the orange scarf, from King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in the throne room of the Tashichhodzong–it’s the seat of the Bhutanese government–it will mark the formal beginning of the doc turned politician’s stint as PM.

Merely five years ago, when Dr Tshering, Bhutan’s joined politics, not many could have imagined that he would be leading his country’s government. Not merely because he was a greenhorn in politics but also because he lost the first ever parliamentary polls he contested.

Standing from the South Thimphu constituency for a seat in the 47-member National Assembly of Bhutan in 2013, he lost. But then so did his party, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) which was as new as he was, having been formed just a few months before the 2013 elections.

Indeed, the DNT had received a drubbing in 2013, coming third in the first round of polling in a country that follows the run-off system with only the top two political parties making it to the final round.

But five years is a long time in politics and the urologist turned politician is all set to begin his stint as the tiny kingdom’s PM at the age of 50. The DNT with its campaign slogan of ‘Narrowing the Gap’ won 30 of the 47 seats in Bhutan’s National Assembly.

Dr Tshering has also been elected to the National Assembly from the very same constituency he lost in 2013. Before this, he was elected his party’s president in May this year. Call it destiny or happenstance but Dr Tshering may not have become PM even if he’d won this time had the person the DNT initially wanted to make the party president developed cold feet and decided against quitting his government job to contest. Fortune, as they say, favours the brave and Dr Tshering is now all set to lead the fledgling democracy.

The expectations from the good doc, who worked as a urologist with the Jigme DorjiWangchuck National Referral Hospital to whom he paid his country’s government NU 6.2 million to be released from his service obligations to jump into politics, are high.

Unlike Bhutan’s first two PMs, Dr Tshering will be the first Bhutanese PM who did not receive higher education in India. Having studied medicine in Dhaka, Bangladesh, DrTshering then did his MBA from Canberra university.

This is also a reflection, perhaps, of more and more Bhutanese looking to study in countries other than India which was not the case some decades ago. Indeed, many young Bhutanese are no longer choosing to do their higher education here as it is cheaper for them now to study elsewhere.

This should be a matter of concern for New Delhi as young Bhutanese receiving education here has helped bolster people-to-people ties. Former Indian ambassador to Bhutan, V.P. Haran notes, “The goodwill the older generation has for India is not present in the younger generation. The older generation which studied in India is aware of the benefits of economic and development cooperation with India.”

Neither has the younger generation faced as many hardships as the older one, says Ambassador Haran. He recalls that in 1968, then PM Indira Gandhi visited Bhutan to inaugurate the Thimphu-Phuentsholing highway. The then third king of Bhutan had then said that until the highway’s construction, the Bhutanese would walk a week to fetch their necessities from Phuentsholing which lies close to the Bhutan-India border.

Given its geo-strategic interests in the land-locked kingdom, New Delhi undoubtedly will be keeping a keen eye on the Tshering-led Bhutanese government. Not the least of New Delhi’s worries will be the new leader’s engagement with Bhutan’s northern neighbour China, a country with whom India was locked in a very public military stand-off on theDoklam plateau last year. Bhutan and China have an unsettled border dispute andDoklam lies in Bhutanese territory.

Ambassador Haran says India has been somewhat complacent on the Doklam issue in that it feels the matter is behind it. Noting that “China has been nibbling at Bhutanese territory on and off,” he believes that there is need for the border issue to be resolved swiftly.

While Beijing and Thimphu do not have formal diplomatic relations, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou made a two-day visit to Bhutan in July this year with Beijing saying that the two sides discussed border issues and bilateral relations. As PM, Dr Tshering is expected to face domestic pressure to resolve the border dispute with China which simmers despite 24 rounds of boundary talks.

In Bhutan, both foreign policy and security fall directly under the king’s ambit. Indeed, the country has no foreign minister in the Cabinet. The DNT had earlier declared that on matter of foreign policy, it will be guided by the King. However, New Delhi will still be anxious to see that the new PM does not veer towards China, something that the kingdom’s first PM Jingmi Y Thinley appeared to be doing.

More immediately, his government will be to discuss and approve the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2018-23) for which India provides substantial assistance by virtue of being the tiny kingdom’s main development partner. The Bhutanese establishment acknowledges that India is a “key element in the country’s economic development and prosperity and the two economies are closely inter-linked”.

At the same time, there’s concern about Bhutan’s growing hydropower debt. Nearly 78 per cent of the tiny nation’s external debt is owed to India on account of the hydropowerprojects being executed. The DNT manifesto notes that though electricity is given huge importance in the country’s economy, the hydropower sector offers “limited youth employment opportunities”.

Therefore, among New Delhi’s immediate concerns will be to once again assuage the concerns of the new government in Thimphu about its mounting debt burden.

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