The most arresting development in present day South Asia is King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan’s abdication from the throne in favour of his son. Suddenly, the region’s longest serving ruler, a popular and respected statesman, has quit the scene.
It has been an orderly transition, meticulously orchestrated, long anticipated but yet a shock and a surprise, for the King had been there for so long that the idea of someone else now taking over is not easily absorbed. Moreover, though the decision had been made known some time ago, the actual abdication took place rather earlier than anticipated. Typically of the former King, this extraordinary step was taken without pomp or self-congratulation: just a swift action when nobody was looking for it, leaving behind a slightly stunned populace.
Nothing compelled the King to give up his throne. He had reigned for thirty-four years, was fit and active, his people’s cynosure. Bhutan developed steadily under his leadership, transforming itself from a simple, remote society shrinking from the world into a more complex, self-confident realm capable of handling the external challenges it must face.
A Buddhist kingdom
While doing so, it has maintained its distinctiveness as a Buddhist kingdom ~ the last of its type anywhere ~ and strengthened its national identity. It has opened up peacefully, at its own pace and in its own manner, choosing a form of development that has made it a byword for environmental sensitivity.
Traditional forms of governance have been modernized, the old order giving way to a new cadre of well-educated senior officials who can hold their own internationally. There have been some dark moments, notably the expulsion of persons of Nepalese origin from southern Bhutan, now refugees whose fate is yet to be resolved.
Nevertheless, overall this has been a period of sustained progress. Life has become better for the average person, who now has access to facilities and opportunities that were undreamed of only a generation ago. There is thus good reason for Bhutan’s people to laud their former monarch’s rule.
His abdication was no impulsive act. For a quarter of a century or more, the King had been shedding the absolute authority of his high position, devolving more and more power to the state structures set up for the purpose, pushing his officials to take more responsibility. He progressively gave up the prerogative of making appointments, entrusting the task to a state commission. District officials were invested with an authority they had never enjoyed in earlier years, initially with mixed results, as poorly trained and sometimes corrupt officials took advantage of the situation.
But things settled down. The National Assembly was strengthened and encouraged to keep an eye on the administration. The Ministers and their supporting officials became more prominent and were organised in a cabinet under a rotating Prime Minister. The law was codified and a proper Supreme Court established.
And when all these and other basic attributes of a modern state were put in place, a Constitution was drafted under which the monarchy itself would become a constitutional structure. This sweeping transition has been widely explained to the people of Bhutan, whose acceptance of the projected arrangements is crucial to their success.
After initial skepticism, for the King was the symbol and fount of authority of the state, it seems that there is now general acceptance of the radical changes proposed. The new Constitution is to come into force in 2008. It was believed that the abdication would take place around that time but the King obviously felt that there was no advantage in delay and that his son should have the exposure to the exercise of power that will make him a more confident monarch under the new constitution, while the former King removes himself from the political scene.
This systematic yielding of authority proceeds from a clear-eyed assessment of global trends. The twentieth century was not a vintage era for crowned heads, the 21st less so. The demands of democracy and peoples’ participation became irresistible, and at Bhutan’s border was democratic India to drive in the point.
The monarch, and his late father before him, realized early that Bhutan’s security and future prosperity lay in going with the democratic tide rather than resisting it. Few ruling monarchs worldwide showed comparable acumen. Yet Bhutan’s people were not yet politically aware, were attached to the monarchy with which they were familiar, so had to be led and persuaded to accept something different. It has taken many years but now, despite some uneasiness at moving out of the shadow of the only ruler most of them have ever known, everything suggests that the people of Bhutan are ready for the next phase in the transformation of their country.
Bhutan is held up as a model among India’s neighbours, a country with which India has an exemplary relationship. India has done much to develop and sustain this relationship. Jawaharlal Nehru himself went to Bhutan, at a time when the journey required days of travel on horseback. In Bhutan, he underwrote that country’s entire development plan and helped launch its modernization. Following Nehru’s lead, India has always tried to be generous and supportive, and has acquiesced in the gradual emergence of Bhutan from under its shadow.
Ties with India
The great disproportion in size and capacity between the two countries has not prevented the growth of close and harmonious relations. They have been able to collaborate on large hydro-electric projects that have transformed the relationship and given vast benefit to each, though initially some Bhutanese officials felt the projects were too big and would subordinate Bhutan’s interest to India’s.
Another critical development was the successful strike at armed camps set up in Bhutan by insurgent Indian groups. Such major actions were the hallmark of the King’s dealings with India, acting boldly and independently when the time was ripe, working with his large neighbour where common interests prevailed.
Bhutan’s new monarch is now on the throne, H.M. King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. He is very familiar with India, with a wide range of friends in this country and the benefit of a year at the National Defence College in New Delhi. He will preside over the transition to popular rule in 2008 under the new constitution.
At that time, a more clamorous Assembly may well emerge, more inclined to take a critical look at government policy, including relations with India. New Delhi can view the prospect with equanimity, for the India-Bhutan relationship has been well launched and remains in good hands.