The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Bhutan gets ready for democracy
September 13, 2006

One of the world's smallest nations is taking a giant step towards becoming a democracy. The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which shares borders with both India and China, will hold its first general election in 2008. The kingdom, with 2.2 million people, is now getting ready to make the shift from monarchy to parliamentary democracy. It is holding mock elections to create awareness among officials and citizens of the process. The mock polls include political campaigning, voting, counting of votes, and declaration of results. In December last year, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced his decision to abdicate in favor of his eldest son. This was a prelude to Bhutan adopting a constitution and electing a prime minister in 2008. 938Live's Tamal Mukherjee (TM) spoke to strategic affairs analyst Surya Gangadharan (SG) in New Delhi, to find out more about the winds of change in the Himalayan kingdom.

(SG): Yes, it must rank as one of the most freak experiments in the world, where a king who is fully in control, who has all the powers, is voluntarily giving them up to parliament and to his people. So, it is a very very unique experiment, especially when you compare it with what King Gyanendra tried to do in Nepal. This is really unique.

(TM): Right. But there are lots of questions about what will happen after they set up a democratic system?

(SG): Well, there will be a lot of uncertainties. For one, whether Bhutanese are mature enough to handle democracy when their politicians serve them well, and democracy also means a more open kind of system. So, you are opening the doors for all kinds of influences, whether it is geo-political, geo-strategic, economic and otherwise. You are opening the doors to corruption. All these things will come in. So, it is not very clear whether Bhutan's current gross national happiness will actually continue maybe ten years down the road.

(TM): How are people in New Delhi viewing this? Are they also a bit concerned about what will happen in future?

(SG): As of now, India is guiding Bhutan in its foreign policy and it is one of the biggest contributors to Bhutan's economic development. The moment a representative government comes there, you are going to meet up with a different set of challenges. How do you persuade MPs and others who have been popularly elected, who have a vision of where they are, who they are, will they take kindly to India telling them this is how it is, this is how things should be done? It won't. There's the other factor that Bhutan is strategically crucial for us. It borders China. And we are aware that Bhutan and China have been having some kind of an unofficial dialogue on their border. Bhutan wants to settle the border, China wants a mission in Bhutan which we don’t favour. So, all these little games are going on. And once a representative government comes in, you could have a Bhutanese government independently taking decisions without consulting Delhi. That's where the problems could arise.

(TM): Yes. A similar situation has happened in Nepal, where democracy was introduced, but it is now going through the initial teething problems?

(SG): I think Nepal in a sense -- the last democracy revolution of 1991 was left unfinished. It wasn't taken to the logical conclusions. So, that was blunder on the part of the Nepalese themselves. So, they had to go down the road again this time in order to complete the task. But to say that India's relations with Nepal are going to be easy, but with the Maoists coming in, things aren't going to be easy, they are going to be even more difficult. So, I would see a lot of parallels in Nepal and Bhutan, in the way developments are going on.

(TM): But it seems the king in Bhutan has decided to go down this road, and they are now getting ready to introduce full-fledged democracy and hold elections in 2008?

(SG): The king seems very certain about what he is doing. And in a sense what he is doing is laudable because he is trying to, he has a vision for Bhutan beyond him. And it's better he tries and does it now because he is still young and his son is younger, and he can be there to serve as a kind of stabilizing force to keep people together. So, obviously he is looking very very far ahead, and one should in a sense congratulate him for his vision. Whether this vision will work or how it will work is something in the realm of uncertainty. --------

That was strategic affairs analyst Surya Gangadharan in New Delhi, talking to
Tamal Mukherjee.



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