The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bhutan’s road to democracy leads to China?

Bhutan’s road to democracy leads to China?
Senior officers recalled that Bhutan PM Jigme Thinley had said that that he only saw growing opportunities in China and no threat.

NEW DELHI: There's a new anxiety in the top echelons of New Delhi about what's arguably India's only friendly neighbour, Bhutan. As the hill kingdom takes another baby step in its transition from monarchy to democracy with its second parliamentary election on July 13, there's realization here that complacence has possibly allowed some disturbing developments there to go unnoticed. Friendship with Bhutan is often taken for granted by our foreign policy mandarins.

So, it was a rude shock when they learned last year from a Chinese press release that the new Bhutan PM, JigmeThinley, has had a meeting with the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and the two countries were set to establish diplomatic ties. Given that Bhutan's foreign policy is conducted by and large in close consultation with New Delhi, such an important step without its knowledge created disquiet.

Although the PM's office in Thimpu sought to play it down, senior officers recalled that Thinley had said months after taking over as PM that he only saw growing opportunities in China and no threat. As part of Bhutan's outreach to China was the decision last year to procure 20 Chinese buses, typically the kind of purchase that would normally be booked with, say, Tata Motors. It raised eyebrows. It did not help that the person who got the contract for supplying the buses was reported to be a relative of Thinley. What's ironic is that in his poll campaign, Thinley is said to be impressing upon the electorate that he was the best upholder ofBhutan's ties with India, whereas he has possibly complicated them.Thinley's Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party is again the main contender for power in this tiny, landlocked nation of 700,000 which saw transition to democracy from an over 100-year-old hereditary monarchy in 2008. Democracy in Bhutan was ushered in by Bhutan's benevolent fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

The last month saw the Bhutanese repose faith in the system with 55% of 380,000-strong electorate braving thunderstorms and landslides to exercise their franchise. As the world's largest democracy, India welcomed Bhutan's transition in 2008, but not everyone in South Block realized that the proposed model wasn't like India's Westminister model of parliamentary democracy. It's a diarchy in Bhutan with the monarch retaining certain overriding powers. Article 20.7 of Bhutan's Constitution says the cabinet shall be collectively responsible to the Druk Gya88lpo (the king) and to Parliament".

The government must also enjoy the confidence of the king as well as parliament. Further Article 20.4 says "the PM shall keep the Druk Gyalpo informed from time to time about the affairs of the state, including international affairs, and shall submit such information and files as called for by the Druk Gyalpo". It now appears that the king wasn't quite in the loop as Bhutan expanded its diplomatic ties with 53 countries, as against 22 in 2008, as well as its overture to Beijing to enhance ties with China which has maximum significance for India. If he hasn't stepped in, it is to avoid any unintended signalling for the growth of democracy in Bhutan.

According to geostrategist Brahma Chellaney, the populist power of electoral politics has introduced a major new element in Bhutan with trans-boundary implications. "As a small, vulnerable country, Bhutan would like to have a good relationship with China. But since the time China gobbled up Tibet, Bhutan's spiritual homeland, Beijing has turned its attention toreal estate in Bhutan, assertively laying claim to Bhutanese territory," says Chellaney. In foreign policy, any conflict between principles and national interest, the latter usually gets precedence. While celebrating the fledgling democracy in Bhutan, policy watchers wonder if New Delhi got blind-sighted to certain ominous signs.
, TNN 

The Times of India

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