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How democracy took roots in Bhutan

Pavan K. Varma  

>In March 2008, the kingdom of Bhutan, an often invisible Shangri-La tucked away strategically in the Himalayas between India and China, became the world’s youngest democracy. An absolute monarchy gave way to a constitutional monarchy, a new Constitution mandating a parliamentary democracy was adopted, and, for the first time, the people of Bhutan voted, on the basis of universal suffrage, to elect a new Parliament consisting of a National Council or Upper House with 25 members, and a National Assembly or Lower House with 47 members. Jigme Thinley became the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. In the second elections > in 2013, his Peace and Prosperity Party was defeated by the People’s Democratic Party. Its leader, Tshering Tobgay, a young Harvard educated man in his mid-forties, is today the Prime Minister of Bhutan.

When I went as Ambassador of India to Bhutan in 2009, many foreign observers believed that the adoption of parliamentary democracy was more a cosmetic exercise which essentially left untouched the unfettered sway of the monarchy. It is true, of course, that the monarchy continues to enjoy a very high degree of reverence and popularity. But it would be wrong to believe that democracy in this once absolutist kingdom is only symbolic, and has not altered the powers hitherto exercised exclusively by the King.

To understand what has really happened in Bhutan, it is essential to go a little back into history. The Wangchuck dynasty came to power in 1907 by uniting a bunch of warring chieftains. The fourth king in this dynasty, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, assumed power in July 1972 at the young age of 17 following the untimely death of his father. Jigme Wangchuck brought to the throne a wisdom and sagacity that belied his youthfulness and lack of experience. Having laid the foundations of peaceful economic development and political stability with full support from India, he applied his mind seriously to the future course of his kingdom. Until the 1980s, Bhutan had sought to zealously preserve its geographical isolation, preferring to let the world go by.

But this began to gradually change under the fourth king. First, he transferred most of his powers to a nominated Council of Ministers, thereby volitionally diluting the concentration of power in the throne. Then, in 1999, he allowed both television and Internet to make their entry into Bhutan.

Finally, and most dramatically, in December 2005, when he was only 50 years of age, he announced his decision to abdicate from the throne in 2008 in favour of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. This announcement was accompanied by a royal command that work on a new Constitution must begin immediately with the express purpose of converting Bhutan into a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

Why did Jigme Singye Wangchuck, whom I had the great privilege of coming to know very well, take these momentous decisions which would curtail his own absolute powers, especially since there was no political restlessness seeking a change of the polity? In fact, most people in this sparsely populated kingdom (population 0.8 million) were happy with their king, and actually had to be persuaded to embrace democracy. The answer quite simply is that Jigme Wangchuck had the political incisiveness, rarely seen in monarchs, to pre-empt history. He knew that in a rapidly globalising world, Bhutan could not sustain its isolationist path; he also knew, looking at developments in neighbouring Nepal, that sooner or later there would be a democratic challenge to an absolute monarchy. In view of this, he chose to anticipate the inevitable by initiating change himself. In doing so he also created the most sustainable milieu for the perpetuation of his own dynasty.

Today, democracy is taking roots in Bhutan. The young fifth king, Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, wise beyond his years, and Queen Jetsun Pema, are loved by the Bhutanese. Prime Minister Tobgay, whose smooth transition from Opposition leader to Prime Minister I have been personally witness to, is an able leader. The National Assembly still functions — especially compared to our raucous standards — with monotonous decorum. Legislators rarely speak out of turn. There is no din in the House. But issues are debated with vigour and conviction. The king addresses the House at the beginning of a session if he chooses to do so.

Otherwise his presence suffices. He remains above the democratic fray, but is very much bound by the Constitution. Although the process is cumbersome, the king can actually be impeached under the Constitution by Parliament. Moreover, the Constitution also mandates that a monarch must compulsorily retire at the age of 65. Democracy, albeit with a strong Bhutanese flavour, has come to stay in the Forbidden Kingdom, and India, as the world’s largest democracy, can only welcome it.

(Pavan K. Varma is a member of the Rajya Sabha representing the Janata Dal (United).)

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2020 7:21:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/How-democracy-took-roots-in-Bhutan/article10752146.ece

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