The Pulse

Bhutan Election Results: A Marker of Gross National Unhappiness?

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The Pulse

Bhutan Election Results: A Marker of Gross National Unhappiness?

Some suspect India played a role in the recent electoral win by Bhutan’s Opposition party.

Bhutan likes to define itself on the parameter of Gross National Happiness. But the recent results of the parliamentary elections reveal signs of unhappiness with the way things are moving in the Himalayan kingdom.

In the election, the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) unexpectedly defeated the ruling party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or Peace and Prosperity Party, by winning 32 out of 47 seats. The PDP’s victory left many surprised as the Opposition had only managed to win 12 seats in the primaries that were held in May. At that time, the PDP secured just 32.5 percent of the votes, against the DPT’s 44.5 percent.

This was the second poll in the Himalayan kingdom, where democratic elections were held for the first time in 2008. In the previous election the DPT registered a landslide victory, winning 42 of 47 seats in the National Assembly (Lower House).

Among the factors attributed to the defeat of the ruling party are the dynamism of the PDP leader, Tshering Togbay, who holds a master's in public administration from Harvard University, and the party’s decision to challenge the concept of Gross National Happiness as being an empty slogan. This struck a chord with the voters.

Many analysts believe that factors related to India also played a crucial role in swinging the mood of the people in favor of the Opposition. When the election campaign was at its peak, New Delhi withdrew subsidies on kerosene and cooking gas supplied to Bhutan, which led to a steep price hike for those essential products. Analysts believe this flared voters’ anger against the ruling party and impacted the election result.

Speaking with The Diplomat, Wasbir Hussain, executive director of the Guwahati-based Centre for Development and Peace Studies, said that “India’s decision to withdraw subsidies at the time of the election may not have been deliberate but the timing was significant.”

However, PDP spokesperson Tashi Dorji argued that “if you look at the primaries you will find that the ruling party’s vote share had come down from 67 percent to 44 percent – an indication of people’s desire for change.”

Thimphu-based journalist Jigme Thinley agreed that “people were looking for change”, adding that “the withdrawal of subsidies in the middle of an election campaign and ties with India becoming an electoral issue might have impacted the outcome of the result.”

While congratulating the newly elected government, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to strengthen ties with Bhutan and assured New Delhi’s "steadfast" and "unflinching" support of the nation’s democratic evolution and economic well-being.

But these pleasantries cannot hide the slight strain that has developed between the two neighbors.

The bedrock of the Indo-Bhutanese relationship has historically been the 1949 Indo–Bhutan Friendship Treaty which envisaged that India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan, but in return the latter had to seek India’s guidance concerning its foreign relations. In 2007 the Himalayan kingdom signed a revised bilateral treaty with India that gave Bhutan significantly greater freedoms in pursuing its foreign and defense policies. Despite the new agreement, however, Bhutan has been sensitive to India’s concerns with China.

Aby Tharakan wrote in The Hindu: “But this changed when the first elected Prime Minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, who assumed power in 2008 after the fourth king introduced democracy, met the then Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, on the sidelines of the climate summit at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil last June. It was the first ever meeting by the premiers of both countries. Totally out of the loop, India was taken aback.”

Subsequently, Bhutan found itself in economic crisis. The allusion is clear: New Delhi did not like the outgoing PM’s overtures to China.

Hussain said, “The drift in the foreign policy introduced by the DPT government and the establishment of relationships with 32 countries in the last five years made Bhutanese people skeptical of the intentions of the government. For people in the Himalayan state India is a cornerstone of democracy and they punished the ruling party for its adventurism.”

Bhutanese journalist Jigme Thinley (no relation to the prime minister), however, considers the Indian attitude “an interference in the internal affairs of the country. There is a section of people in the country who feels that New Delhi has put its hands in the election.”

When asked whether Thimpu has broken New Delhi’s trust by dealing with China and thereby putting at risk India’s geostrategic concerns and security interests in South Asia, Thinley opined that “Bhutan is an independent nation and has the right to establish diplomatic relationships with any country. Having a strong relationship with India does not mean no ties can be formed with other neighbors.”

Thinley continued, “It is a reminder to us that we cannot keep depending on India. It is time for us to find ways to sustain ourselves without India. The time has come when we have to reassess the relationship with our traditional ally. The new generation in the Himalayan state does not appreciate the big brotherly attitude of its southern neighbor.”

An article in Kuensel Online argues, “It looks highly implausible that, after such intense and friendly interactions between the two governments and nation states in the past five years, India should harbor any doubt and suspicion at all of the royal government’s commitment to Bhutan-India relations.”

Wasbir Hussain, however, feels that “common people in Bhutan are apprehensive about China’s designs on the country. The predominantly Buddhist nation is not happy with Beijing’s behavior in Tibet. So I don't think a man on the street will prefer China over India.”

India knows the consequences of interfering with democratic processes in Nepal where New Delhi faces a crisis of credibility despite being a facilitator of democratic evolution in the landlocked nation. Its paranoia about Beijing has alienated a strong closed door neighbor. 

An op-ed in The Hindu said, "New Delhi must desist from using its privileged position in Bhutan to play games of the sort it did with Nepal or risk alienating another neighbor."