There was no deliberate effort to damage Thinley’s electoral prospects, say sources

Analysts may continue to speculate over the rationale — and impact —of the fuel subsidy cuts that India imposed on Bhutan just before the country went to the polls earlier this month but South Block officials have a simpler story to tell. The withdrawal of the Indian subsidy, they say, was the result of a goof-up between two ministries. They also hasten to add that the prospect of higher cooking gas and kerosene prices did not play a role in the defeat of the ruling party in Thimphu. Outgoing Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley’s government lost not because of the Indian action but because the opposition’s votes, split among four parties in the first round, got consolidated in the second round behind his challenger, Tshering Tobgay’s party.

So far it was being said that India had withdrawn the subsidy on cooking gas on the eve of the second round of polling to teach Mr. Thinley a lesson for holding talks with China without taking New Delhi into confidence.

According to highly placed sources, there was no deliberate effort to damage Mr. Thinley’s electoral prospects and he remains a formidable political figure with whom India would have to do business in future.

They maintained that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had merely asked the Ministry of Petroleum to carry out a review of existing arrangements as part of the preparations for Bhutan’s next Five Year Plan. But the Petroleum Ministry went ahead and announced the decision to suspend the subsidy without taking other wings of the government into confidence. MEA officials gamely tried to back the Petroleum Ministry’s decision but acknowledged privately that election eve was hardly the time to throw the rule book at the Bhutanese, the sources said.

As the controversy peaked in Bhutan, the government did think of proposing an interim solution but stayed its hand as this would have complicated the issue.

As for the withdrawal of subsidy being the main cause of Mr. Thinley’s party, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) losing power, the sources pointed out that the party’s vote share remained virtually unchanged during the two rounds of polling – the first round was held well before the controversy erupted and the other just last week.

The first round of elections was contested by four parties when the subsidy controversy was nowhere on the horizon. Mr. Thinley’s DPT won 44.52 per cent of the votes. The second round took place after India suspended the subsidy but its vote share only fell by a few decimal points, according to flash results. This means the DPT’s vote share remained unaffected though it had been suggested that India suspension of the subsidy would hurt the party badly.

DPT’s challenger, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won only 33 per cent of the votes in the first round. But in the second round, its vote share shot up because of the higher index of opposition unity. After trailing the DPT by 12 percentage points in the first round, the PDP was astute enough to co-opt six candidates from the two parties eliminated after the first round of voting. This aspect has been “carefully kept out of the commentary” on the Bhutan elections, the sources noted.

The DPT’s unchanged vote share means that despite getting just 15 of the 47 seats, the party and Mr. Thinley will continue to exert considerable influence in Bhutan politics. India would hardly have tried to marginalise such a figure, the sources added.