Change in Bhutan: handle with care

Bhutanese voters have given a decisive mandate to the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) in the just-concluded final round of the country’s third general elections. A new party, established only in 2013, the DNT secured 54% of the votes and won 30 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly. With 17 seats, runner-up Druk Phuensum Tshogpa will sit in the opposition. Bhutanese voters have reaffirmed their support for democracy. Around 71.46% of the voters exercised their franchise, indicating significant voter enthusiasm in democratic processes. In each election so far, the Bhutanese people have voted out the incumbent ruling party. In doing so, they have voted for change. It is heartening that they are expressing their support for change via the ballot box. Bhutanese voters have also elected seven women to parliament, the highest so far. Unlike the rest of South Asia, which elects rather aged persons to parliament, Bhutan’s new parliament has 14 representatives in their 30s, 13 in their 50s and just two in their 60s. In its election manifesto, the centre-left DNT promised to incentivise agricultural work, increase public sector wages and focus on healthcare. It is expected to work on diversifying the Bhutanese economy, which is heavily reliant on the hydroelectric sector where India is not only the main investor but also the largest buyer.

To avoid politicising foreign policy, the DNT and the DPT agreed to keep discussion of Bhutan’s foreign relations out of the election campaign. Yet, the looming presence of India and China could be felt in the Himalayan kingdom throughout the election, especially with the ruling, pro-India People’s Democratic Party being ousted in the preliminary round of the election. The face-off at Doklam has impacted Bhutan immensely and people, politicians and parties are anxious about the route that foreign policy will take under the new government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to reach out to Bhutan’s prime minister-elect, Lotay Tshering. He must follow this up with a visit to discuss the steps the new government would like India to take to strengthen Bhutan’s economy and enhance its sense of security. An important issue on the minds of many Bhutanese is the question of sovereignty. As a sovereign country, they would like to pursue an independent foreign policy and establish relations with countries of their choosing. This, of course, means that they would like to establish diplomatic and economic relations with China. Hitherto, the Bhutanese have discussed the issue in whispers. That could grow louder now. Does India have a strategy in mind to deal with Bhutan opening up to China? Hopefully, the Modi government has learnt its lessons and will not allow Bhutan to go the Nepal way — into China’s embrace.

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Change in Bhutan: handle with care

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