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India's new opportunity in Bhutan

July 14, 2013 18:19 IST

The previous democratically-elected government in Bhutan sought to get cosy with China. Will the new Tshering Tobgay dispensation mend the fences with India? Shubha Singh examines

The surprising result in Bhutan’s second election is due to a massive transfer of votes to the main opposition party, giving the People’s Democratic Party a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The PDP won 32 seats in the 47 member national assembly while the outgoing ruling party could win only 15 seats.

The transition to a new government shows the growing maturity of Bhutan’s electoral process, which was introduced in the country for the first time in 2008 when the Bhutanese chose their first democratically-elected government.

Bhutan has a mix of multi-party and two party electoral system.

The primary round of polls is conducted on a multiparty basis; there were four registered political parties -- Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, People’s Democratic Party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa that contested in the primary election on May 31 this year.

The second round of the elections held on July 13 was between the two parties, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa and the People’s Democratic Party that received the maximum votes.

The DPT had received 44.5 per cent of the votes cast in the primary election while the People’s Democratic Party had got 32.53 per cent of the votes.

In the second or final round of the election, the PDP made a strategic alliance with the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, adopting their seven winning candidates. 

The PDP, not only acquired the votes of the other two parties, it also shaved off more than 10 per cent of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s votes to get two thirds of the seats in Bhutan’s second Parliament.

For the first election in 2008, there were only two political parties in the contest, the DPT and the People’s Democratic Party. DPT won 45 seats in the national assembly and its leader, two term prime minister, Jigme Y Thinly became the head of the first democratic government.  

The People’s Democratic Party got only two seats.

The DPT leaders were known political figures who had served in earlier governments while the PDP had to contend with the argument that they were unknown individuals, with little experience of public life.

Notwithstanding their limited presence in the assembly, the two-member opposition led PDP leader Tshering Tobgay served as an articulate opposition that provided constructive inputs in the legislative work.  

The DPT campaigned on the good work they had done in expanding the rural road network and working to reduce poverty in the remote rural areas.

The People’s Democratic Party concentrated on the shortcomings of the DPT government such as failure to address issues like the external debt and liquidity crisis, increasing urban migration, the high unemployment and increasing income gap.

Thinly’s attempts to run an independent foreign policy had raised eyebrows especially as it managed to irk New Delhi when he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the Rio Summit and agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. 

There was criticism of the government’s unsuccessful bid to contest for the non-permanent Asian seat in the United Nations Security Council, which led to Bhutan establishing diplomatic relations with 52 countries.  

DPT’s Home Minister Minjue Dorji and Speaker Jigme Shultrim getting convicted on old corruption charges caused some embarrassment.

The week of the election campaign was, however, stirred up with the controversy over the lapsing of the oil and gas subsidy provided by India on June 30, the day Bhutan’s five year plan came to an end.

India provides financing and subsidy for Bhutan’s five year plans, but the Bhutanese government had decided that the next five year plan would be finalized by the new government.

An untimely letter by Indian Oil Corp informing the Bhutan government that the subsidy had lapsed on June 30 caused consternation in Thimphu with the prospect of rising oil and gas prices.

Lack of foresight on one side and insensitivity and absence of coordination on the other side had created a critical situation. But, in the keyed up electoral atmosphere, the subsidy cut was construed as a sign of New Delhi’s irritation with the Thinly government.

In a prompt message congratulating the PDP leader on his victory, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured him of India’s “steadfast and unflinching support” and said that he had already instructed officials to prepare for discussions on India’s plan assistance to Bhutan. But the sentiments aroused by the unseemly controversy will take time to die down.

Shubha Singh