Had he survived his tribulations for the sake of democracy, Rongthong Kunley Dorji would have been a contented man after Bhutan voted in its second General Assembly elections for a party that was in the Opposition with just two seats.
Dorji is no longer around to see the results of his sacrifice, having passed away in Gangtok in 2011, after enduring nearly two decades of exile and spells in Indian and Bhutanese prisons. But mandarins in South Block would have had a restful weekend after the results gave Tshering Tobgay-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP) a majority over the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), led by the former Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley.
While Indian officials say there are no favourites among political parties in Bhutan, none in South Block is unhappy with the outcome. Till three days ago, practitioners of India’s foreign policy were at the receiving end for trying to economically strangulate Bhutan just because, it was alleged, Mr. Thinley met senior Chinese leaders twice without taking the Indian minders into confidence.
The truth behind these assertions might never be known, but senior officials of the External Affairs Ministry admit that India’s decision to suspend cooking gas subsidy and leave talks on Bhutan’s Five Year Plan in limbo could have been better timed. The fact that these events took place just before the elections had Mr. Thinley going live on television to assert that the Chinese angle had nothing to do with the temporary hardship that hit Bhutan. His rival and eventual winner, Mr. Tobgay, had a field day, claiming that besides running the economy aground, Mr. Thinley had impaired ties with India.
Both India and Bhutan cannot afford a rupture in ties owing to suspicions about Thimphu’s manoeuvrings on the international stage. India has a lot riding on Bhutan, and the reverse is also true. By 2020, India hopes to generate 10,000MW of power from hydel projects in Bhutan. Though the civil nuclear initiative is at the heart of India’s plan to augment power generation, the corresponding amount of power from this source by 2020 would at best be just a quarter of the amount from Bhutan.
India has so far avoided a Nepal with Bhutan as far as power projects are concerned, with its generous doses of financial assistance and hand-holding during Bhutan’s tryst with democracy. All that will be tested as Mr. Tobgay charts a distinctive path for his nation as Mr. Thinley tried to do.
Voices are already being raised about the costs of dislocating people for Indian hydel projects. This was not so when the Tala, Chukha and Krichhu hydel projects went on stream. At closed-door meetings, Bhutan officials said things would not be the same as before. India has met the demand from the emerging elite of a liberalising Bhutan, agreeing to give civil and other works to its citizens. Bhutan, too, has gone out of its way to help India. This Republic Day, it did not take much time for the King of Bhutan to announce his readiness to step in after the Sultan of Oman declined to be the chief guest.
India will also have to take a call on how much assistance it can dole out to Bhutan, which has remained the largest recipient of its assistance for years. When the previous government tried to impose taxes, the decision was challenged in court, and it lost. Eventually, the government was made to return the taxes it had collected unlawfully.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister-designate has issues with the management of the economy. In a recent blog, he wrote about how the economy had become vulnerable with debts rising and short-term rupee borrowings spiralling out of control. Eastern Bhutan, from where Rongthong Kunley Dorji came, has been alleging discrimination.
Liberalisation has brought its own set of issues. A place where television sets were not allowed till 1998, Thimphu is now bulging with ATMs, pubs and discos and SUVs. It is up to the new government to resolve the contradictions and meet the unfulfilled desires, but the danger is that India’s ties will not remain unquestioned when societal turbulence hits the country.
All of this points to testing times ahead for democracy in Bhutan, and by extension to ties with India. Will Bhutan be able to live up to the late democracy activist’s vision of a society that looks after all its citizens — easterners, Nepalese as well as the Druk elite? Or, will it go the way as a former Indian Ambassador to Bhutan quipped: “Bhutan may well live to regret having become democratic.”
In either case, India will have to look for a new model after taking a lesson from the way it has handled ties with its other neighbours.