Pragmatic move

The  Dalai Lama’s announcement of political retirement was not unexpected. He has hinted for some time that he would like to step down as the political head of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India which is not recognised by any government in the world. Even its identity is not well known, though the Tibetan cause enjoys support among many sections of people.

The Dalai Lama’s personality has put it in a shade. It has an elected prime minister but neither the office nor the political arrangement is completely democratic, because the real power rests in the Dalai Lama. He wants to change the position by empowering the prime minister’s office. The septuagenarian spiritual leader may not have many more years of active life left. The world’s interest in the Tibetan cause is to a good extent the result of his personal status and charisma.  He might want the prime minister’s office to gain more legitimacy and visibility so it can effectively continue the Tibetans’ struggle.

The Dalai Lama might have also felt that democratisation of the office will strengthen it. It might make it more sensitive to the different views among the Tibetans. The decision is also significant in view of the pro-democracy movements in the Arab world and Africa. It is likely that any future negotiations with China will be conducted by the empowered political office rather than by representatives of the Dalai Lama. However, it is unlikely that there will be any diminution of the Dalai Lama‘s position in the real sense at least in the near future. This is because it is difficult to separate political power from religious authority in the institution of the Dalai Lama, as the former flows from the latter. It took centuries for Rome to effect this separation of powers.

It also makes good practical sense to democratically empower a political office to represent him and the community because it will take many years for his spiritual successor to be discovered and groomed. Succession is likely to be controversial as China has said it would accept only a reincarnation within Tibet and the Dalai Lama has, perhaps deliberately, spelt out a number of options before him. Separation of the political leadership and giving it an independent status  might insulate the office to some extent from the likely controversy over succession.

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