The Jigmi Thinley government’s perceived closeness to China may have upset its relations with India, allowing the opposition PDP to make this a contentious issue in Bhutan’s elections

Six years after Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and as concerns mounted in Delhi as to how the Himalayan kingdoms would reconcile with changes in the region, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a note to then Foreign Secretary R.K. Nehru dated July 17, 1955.

“We must give no impression to the Bhutan Government that we have any desire to have political or other control over it. We should not push our men there and it is only when they want any help that we should send it,” it read. The 1949 Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty had made it clear India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan, but in return the latter had to seek India’s guidance in its foreign relations. Between the malaria-infested forests of the Indian plains and the snow-capped mountains that separated it from Tibet, self-contained Bhutan has been fiercely proud of its independence and protective of its tantric Buddhist traditions. Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms were consolidated only by 1907 when the first King, Ugyen Wangchuck, established the monarchy.

By the time of the third king, China was claiming some parts of Bhutanese territory. Though worried, India was cautious in requesting a diplomatic mission to Bhutan.

But King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck saw an opportunity in an alliance with India. He agreed to accept Indian help to modernise Bhutan. On another front, meanwhile, things were not looking upbeat — New Delhi’s attempts to woo Nepal with financial assistance were unsuccessful as the kingdom proceeded to establish relations with third countries including China. “The other country (Nepal) thinks that we are trying to buy their goodwill. Instead we are getting their ill will…. They are perfectly free to go their own and we shall go our own way,” Nehru wrote in a 1956 internal note.

Beginning a friendship

In 1958, Nehru rode to Bhutan with young Indira on the back of a yak forging a friendship not just between two countries, but also two families; the Wangchucks and the Gandhis. In a speech at the picturesque valley of Paro on September 23 that year, Nehru said, “Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan a small one, the former might wish to exercise pressure on Bhutan. It is therefore essential that I make it clear to you that our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your will.” Since then, Bhutan has been sensitive to India’s concern over China, despite a revised 2007 treaty which does not mention Bhutan having to seek India’s “guidance” in its foreign relations.

But this changed when the first elected Prime Minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, who assumed power in 2008 after the fourth king introduced democracy, met the then Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the climate summit at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil last June. It was the first ever meeting by the premiers of both countries. Totally out of the loop, India was taken aback. While a cabinet release from the Bhutan government said the meeting discussed Bhutan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for the term 2013-2014 (which Thimphu eventually lost), the official PRC release quoted Jigmi Y. Thinley as saying Bhutan wished “to forge formal diplomatic ties with China as soon as possible.”

Subsequently, Bhutan “found” itself in an economic crisis worsened by a rupee deficit with not having enough currency for imports. Loans were frozen, vehicle imports were banned and rupee spending was tightened. While the Opposition blamed the government for not seeing the crisis coming, Jigmi Y. Thinley blamed it on consumerism and increased living standards of the Bhutanese. To worsen things, India delaying aid commitment to Bhutan’s 11th Five-Year Plan and the lifting of its kerosene and LPG subsidies to Bhutan just before elections were perceived as India ‘punishing’ Bhutan for Jigmi Y. Thinley’s supposed warming up to China. Though his party, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), tried to clarify during the campaign that relations with India were as good as ever, the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) did not buy this claim. While the Prime Minister travelled across the world, forging diplomatic ties with other countries, and talking about Gross National Happiness (GNH), he ignored relations with India and “real” issues back home, the PDP said. Two months before Jigmi Y. Thinley met the Chinese Premier, he led a high-level ‘Happiness Conference’ at the U.N. While it brought some good press and publicity for Bhutan, it was not received well back home. Voicing the general mood, Dasho Sonam Kinga, currently the chairperson of Bhutan’s upper house, said the country is facing a crisis of vision. “These are not times to preach GNH abroad; it is time to pay serious attention at home,” he said, referring to the rupee crisis.

Miscalculation

Thus, what Jigmi Y. Thinley considered as an achievement of his government actually backfired during the elections, which reduced the number of his MPs from a majority of 45 to 15 in this election. For the electorate, Bhutan having diplomatic ties with 53 countries did not matter greatly. It caught the imagination of the urban elite, but not the common folk who travel to Indian border towns in Assam and Bengal for big and small purchases. They found that Bhutan’s currency, the ngultrum’s value — though pegged to the rupee — had dropped because of the rupee crisis.

Though the ruling party fulfilled its major promise of building roads to remote villages, the Opposition’s stance against corruption, transparency in governance, promising a cut in expensive foreign travel and mending relations with India struck a note. The DPT’s aggressive campaign and denial of issues affecting people’s lives also did not help. Instead of focusing on their manifesto pledges during meetings, the DPT sought to criticise PDP’s colourful promises, which included power tillers and oil depots to villages, as well as helicopter ambulances. What with the opposition party countering the DPT’s criticism, all the electorate knew by the end of the campaign were the PDP’s pledges.

Deft moves

In sum, the DPT’s calculation — that their president’s oratory skills, his illustrious career in the government, international standing, and the ability to speak all of Bhutan’s major dialects would deliver for the party — misfired. The PDP’s Tshering Tobgay was seen as approachable. Personally responding to messages on social media, writing a popular blog and seen on the road running or cycling, he connected with the youth easily. While former cabinet members decided to keep their SUVs after the completion of their term, Tshering Tobgay returned the Toyota Prado he was entitled to, impressing upon the people that he cannot keep one while the country was in a financial crisis.

As the 47-year-old Harvard graduate assumes office as Bhutan’s second elected Prime Minister, it is the financial crisis that has to be tackled first. Tobgay has promised to inject Rs.3 billion into the banks to restart the economy and unfreeze loans. He is expected to discuss these issues during his visit to India shortly. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s congratulatory letter as soon as the election results were announced has also been welcomed as a sign of India willing to engage openly with the new government.

The foreign policy section of the PDP’s manifesto is comparatively very short. It states their government will foster good relations with the neighbouring Indian states and will follow a “cautious” approach on international relations. This is good news for India.

(Aby Tharakan is an Indian media consultant based in Thimphu.)

More In: Comment | Opinion