Change in Bhutan

Bhutan has taken a significant step towards consolidating its young democracy. Its second general election went off peacefully and voter turnout was a robust 80 per cent, indicating that the Bhutanese people remain enthusiastic about exercising their right to franchise. The victory of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (DPT) is a mandate for change. If in 2008 Bhutan signalled to the world that it is capable of peaceful transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, this time the result indicates that it is capable of a peaceful democratic transition as well. The ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) party has accepted the people’s verdict with grace. In the first round of voting, the DPT seemed poised to win. In the run-off vote, however, it was defeated. It has resisted the temptation to cry foul following its surprise defeat.

Bhutan’s new government has several challenges ahead. Not only does it need to revive the economy but also, it must take steps to give the country’s democracy substance. At present Bhutan is an electoral democracy. While this is heartening, it is not enough especially when a quarter of the population – the people of ethnic Nepali origin – remain stateless and stripped of citizenship rights. The PDP government needs to address this problem to make Bhutan an inclusive democracy. The other important challenge is its relationship with India. Traditionally warm relations have cooled of late with Thimphu reaching out to China, ruffling feathers in Delhi. Then a fortnight ago, India announced the cutting of cooking gas subsidies. Coming just days ahead of the run-off vote in Bhutan, Delhi’s move contributed to a perception that it was aimed at influencing the election outcome and teaching the DPT a lesson.

India has denied these allegations. Bhutan is a sovereign country with a right to conduct its foreign policy in any way it sees fit. Meddling in the elections of a neighbour, especially one that is finding its way as a democracy is indefensible. Indian diplomats have since clarified that the withdrawal of fuel subsidies was the unintended fall-out of inter-ministry bungling and it was being restored. This is hardly the way an emerging power conducts its diplomacy, especially vis-à-vis a strategically located neighbour. In its dealings with Bhutan’s new government, Delhi must tread softly and resist the temptation to behave like a bullying big brother.

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