Today's Paper

India’s withdrawal of cooking gas subsidy and Bhutan politics

As dust over the second Parliamentary elections in Bhutan settles, two interesting facts have the potential to upset the dominant narrative — that India withdrew the subsidy on cooking gas in order to defeat the then Prime Minister who had tried to open talks with China without taking New Delhi into confidence.

New Delhi had no intention of cutting the subsidy, especially on the eve of the second round of Parliamentary elections in Bhutan. It was a mix-up in communication between two Ministries that led to suspension of subsidy to Bhutan, said highly placed sources.

This suspension led to suspicions about India putting the squeeze on Bhutan and, in particular, the then Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, for his alleged transgressions, such as meeting the Chinese leadership.

According to the sources, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had merely asked the Ministry of Petroleum to carry out a review of the existing arrangements as part of preparations for Bhutan’s next Five Year Plan. But the Petroleum Ministry went ahead and announced the decision to suspend subsidy without taking other wings of the Government into confidence. Caught unawares, the MEA gamely tried to back the Petroleum Ministry’s decision, while its officials privately acknowledged that this was not the time to throw the rule book at the Bhutanese.

As the controversy peaked in Bhutan, the Government did think of an interim solution, but decided not to do anything as this would have complicated the issue.

The second aspect that has come out after the release of preliminary voting percentages is that the vote share of Mr. Thinley’s party, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party, remained virtually unchanged during the two rounds of polling — the first one before the controversy erupted and the other just last week.

In the first round of elections held among four parties last month when the subsidy controversy was nowhere on the horizon, Mr. Thinley’s DPT won 44.52 per cent of the votes. Last week, in a direct fight with its challenger, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), its vote share fell by just one decimal point, according to flash results.

Highly placed sources say this means the DPT’s vote share remained unaffected, though it has been suggested that India suspended the subsidy to hurt Mr. Thinley’s electoral prospects in the second round of polling.

DPT’s challenger, the PDP, won only 33 per cent of the votes in the first round. In the second round, the DPT’s vote share remained largely the same, but the PDP’s votes went up dramatically. One reason was the higher index of Opposition unity. After trailing the DPT by 12 per cent 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 Bhutan elections,” said the sources.