[A report on Bhutan elections to be published in Samkaleen Teesari Duniya.]
by Anand Swaroop Verma
The recently concluded second general election in Bhutan on July 13 has once again exposed the bankruptcy of India’s foreign policy. This election saw the defeat of ruling incumbent Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) at the hands of main opposition party Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), which secured 35 votes against 12 votes of DPT. It must be noted that in the National Assembly’s primary election held on May 31, DPT got 33 votes as compared to 12 of PDP. The other two parties that took part in primary election namely Druk Namdruk Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa(DCT) got two and none respectively. As per Bhutan’s constitution, the final election is held between winner and runner-up of primary elections. It is very striking to note as to what happened within just one and a half month from May 31 to July 13 that DPT lost its electoral base and finally lost to PDP.
In fact, the Government of India had stopped subsidizing kerosene and cooking gas for Bhutan in the first week of July. It is interesting to know that this sanction did not originate from financial constraints or whatsoever of the Indian Oil Corporation rather directed by the external affairs ministry of GOI. Actually, Indian government was unhappy with DPT leader and Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley because it held that Thinley was arbitrarily running his foreign affairs. On the other hand, supporters of Thinley argued that regardless of being neighbor to a big country and receiving economic support from it, any sovereign nation does not lose its universal right to decide its foreign affairs. It is to be reminded that although there was a provision in the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949 that Bhutan would run its foreign policy on India’s advice, but the renewed treaty of 2007 had omitted the clause after which Bhutan became independent to shape its foreign policy at its own end. It is a different scenario altogether that still there are many official and unofficial arrangements that ensure whoever is in power there will have to abide by the interests of India while shaping Bhutan’s internal and external policies. Prime Minister Thinley was obviously well aware of this so he did nothing during his tenure that could possibly thwart India’s security concerns.
Then what is the reason behind India’s resentment? The conundrum is rooted in an international convention held last year in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro where Bhutan’s PM Thinley had an informal chat with the then Chinese Premier. China is Bhutan’s immediate neighbor other than India despite this was the first meeting between both heads of governments. India’s stance towards Bhutan changed in this backdrop when external affairs officials started talking off the record that Bhutan was now getting out of control. Since Bhutan’s all ten five-year plans till date have been supported by India and many hydel projects too are dependent on India’s aid (benefitting India only), so it was indigestible for India to see Bhutan getting close with China. It was not just the meeting of leaders but procurement of 15 Chinese buses by Bhutan in particular that invited India’s ire.
The issue is not confined to relations with China alone. India never wants Bhutan to foster relations with any country. Bhutan had diplomatic relations with 22 countries until 2008 that flourished in Thinley’s regime and number increased to 53. Bhutan has no diplomatic relation with China until date but India is wary of the possibility in future as Bhutan-China border dispute is largely sorted out now. Indian government is aware of Chinese plan to lay rail line up to Chumbi Valley located at the interjection of India (Sikkim)-Bhutan-China (Tibet) and the very day this project is completed; Bhutan will become free from the obligation that arises due to its three-sided land locked territory from India. This rail line project is inevitable as China is pressing hard on it. India would have accepted this situation in advance and framed its strategy accordingly but this is sheer bankruptcy of its diplomacy that the country on which it has spent billions so far is now being pushed to a politically amphibious state.
Apart from cutting subsidy on oil and gas to Bhutan, India has also announced nonpayment of excise duty refund and scrapping subsidy on power generated from Chukha hydel project. India has argued that due to economic reasons it has scrapped subsidy in its various sectors too, but people of Bhutan are not easily convinced with this logic. They know that amounts saved by cutting subsidy in a country of more than a billion and Bhutan, that has a mere 6-7 lac population, are not comparable. This is insignificant for India. Bhutanese people have perceived this as an arm twisting tactics of Indian establishment and India through its move just on the eve of elections has reached out with the message that they will have to face more sanctions if they vote back Thinley’s party DPT to power. In response to resenting Bhutanese people, external affairs ministry of India had assured that the issue would be resolved through bilateral talks with the new government. This was a clear indication of regime change in Bhutan and its citizens did no mistake to read this in true context.
The reaction to India’s move in Bhutan cannot be termed as healthy and positive in the bilateral relations. Indian establishment will have to pay a price for this eventually. Wangcha Sangye, a popular blogger of Bhutan wrote in his blog:
“National interests of Bhutan have to rise over and above the politics of always playing the Indian tune. We are not just good neighbors of India. We are a good and reliable friend of India. But Bhutan and Bhutanese are sovereignty unto our self. Therefore Bhutan’s paramount national interests and affairs just cannot be only pleasing India. We have to please ourselves too!”
He made scathing comments in the same blog further, “Why do Indian media and politicians want to castrate Bhutan for the most harmless relationship effort with China? Just the other day, I heard a rumour of a bureaucrat of India chastising Bhutanese leadership of being “dishonest”. What the hell is that suppose to mean? Which national leaders and governments bare its soul to another nation? We are not paid sex workers that benefactors need to know when our eyelashes and asses move and in which direction”.
Wangcha Sangye has expressed the sentiments of Bhutanese people through his blog. After the elections I talked to one of my acquaintances in Phuentsholing (Bhutan) who is a supporter of DPT. He told me that he too had voted in favor of PDP on July 13 because he was assured that if DPT returns to power, India will not roll back subsidy cuts. He said that there was a further indication that India may stop aiding five-year plans too.
It must be recalled that more than one lakh Bhutanese people were ousted from the southern part of this country in 1990-91 when they had demanded democracy. India was hand in gloves with Bhutanese king in this act. It has took some time for Bhutanese citizens and left out Lhotsampas (Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin) in southern part to heal their wounds when they are again exposed to the tragic subsidy cut and anti-Thinley politics of India. PDP’s victory has although instilled a sense of satisfaction in India’s establishment and an interim assurance to the Bhutanese people that they will not be pauperized any more, but its consequences will prove to be unpleasant in the long run. India’s foreign policy makers will have to rethink over its mentality towards neighbors and realize the need to rectify it at the outset.
15 July 2013
The author is a New Delhi based senior journalist and editor of Hindi journal ’Samkaleen Teesari Duniya’.