While India will applaud the democratic success achieved by this close and very friendly neighbour, it will have to be watchful about bilateral ties. Bhutan has evolved fast, and as the public domain has expanded, so too has public opinion about the features of the relationship with India. This has become a new dimension in the relationship and will need sustained attention ~ SALMAN HAIDAR
In this season of discontent when so many regions of the world are wracked with turmoil and disorder, South Asia has gone through the processes of democratic change in largely orderly fashion. No old-fashioned dictators or hereditary rulers have clung to power in defiance of the popular mandate, none of the old guard have successfully distorted political processes in order to keep themselves in authority. Over the last several months, there have been a series of elections across the region, and despite some scattered complaints of wrong-doing, the electoral losers have been obliged to make way for those who obtained the majority vote. Moreover, democratic transition was not the outcome of urging by anxious outsiders: it was the local populations themselves in command. In some of the countries of South Asia democratic norms are well-established and political transition through the ballot can be taken for granted, but even where democratic processes have been interrupted all too often, as in Pakistan, elections have now been held successfully, and the government has been voted in and has not got where it is by simply assuming authority. The contrast with what is taking place in many other parts of the world is striking.
Most recently, the elections in the kingdom of Bhutan have taken the story of democracy in the region an important step forward. This was the second general election conducted in Bhutan under the new arrangements developed in that country and it produced decisive results. The incumbent government was roundly defeated and has been replaced by the former Opposition.
Remarkably the chanoeover has been calm, almost a matter-of-fact happening, and while winners and losers would have experienced the elation of success and the pangs of defeat, they have played their respective parts without any demur or complaint. Nobody has brought dark accusations to suggest that they were unfairly undone nor is there any sign of the kind of witch-hunt that tends to surface at such times. Bhutan has passed the test of political change with flying colours and takes its legitimate place in the democratic conclave.
The untroubled transition should not mask the magnitude of what has been achieved. Three or four generations ago, Bhutan seemed an unlikely field for anything other than the endemic strife in which it had been engaged for the greater part of its independent history. Its narrow, parallel valleys separated by ranges of steep mountains encouraged the kind of self-sufficient and autonomous fiefdoms seen in other parts of the great mountains, making any sort of consistent nationwide rule very difficult to attain.
There were also unhelpful external factors to be handled, involving the rival demands of the former Tibetan overlords to the north and the burgeoning power of the British to the south. For well over a century the rulers of Bhutan threaded a careful independent path between the two, even while they competed constantly among themselves for ascendancy at home. It was only in the last part of the 19th century that a powerful local ruler was able to expand his domain to bring the greater part of the country under a single authority. From him descended the royal dynasty that has led the country ever since and remains enthroned today. It is their visionary leadership that has brought extraordinary change to the country culminating in the popular democracy that is now so well established.
Unifying and consolidating the state was the work of the local rulers themselves, not something brought about by the intervention of an outside power. Similarly, the carefully managed evolution of a traditional monarchy into a popular democracy was the work of Bhutan itself, unbidden by present-day proponents of the democratic creed. A succession of enlightened monarchs concluded that the country&’s cohesion and long-term security lay in strengthening not the monarchy but the instruments of popular rule. The people, who were not at the start prepared for such innovations, were asked to elect representatives to a central assembly whose power to manage affairs was gradually enlarged to the extent that it even had the authority to recall the king, though this power had to be forced on the representatives, for they revered their monarch as the symbol of their country and source of authority. In keeping with this approach, the institutions of state were meticulously built up to take responsibility for day-to-day affairs, to adjudicate disputes, to select civil servants, to provide for public education and social and economic advancement, to modernise the functioning of the state, and only then to adopt a Constitution. It was after thorough preparation over several decades that Bhutan entered the era of democratic rule. By then it was already sturdily established on its present-day foundations and able to take to the new demands without a hitch. The mantra of “one person, one vote”, which can have profoundly disturbing consequences elsewhere, found ready acceptance in Bhutan which was by now thoroughly prepared. It was able to elect a government for itself, and now to change it.
The new government in Thimphu is largely drawn from a new generation of young and well-trained individuals, many of whom have been educated abroad. Typically, the new breed was schooled in Bhutan itself and then had a spell in a university outside the country before returning to work as public servants on the way to entering political life. They are notably younger than their predecessors who were themselves fairly youthful: the Prime Minister is 47 years of age and several of his key ministers are even younger. The gerontocracy that remains entrenched elsewhere in South Asia has been conclusively dispelled in Bhutan and the trend towards bringing in new, well-educated individuals familiar with the international environment, which was already visible in the recent past, has been, reinforced. There is no electoral promise that the new incumbents will bring about major change but a number of number of local issues affecting daily life have been flagged in the party manifesto. What is on offer, and seems to have public endorsement, is a down-to-earth programme of considerable practical consequence, without disturbing the basic policy structures of the state.
While India will applaud the democratic success achieved by this close and very friendly neighbour, it will have to be watchful about bilateral ties. Bhutan has evolved fast, and as the public domain has expanded, so too has public opinion about the features of the relationship with India. This has become a new dimension in the relationship and will need sustained attention.
The main current story, however, is of democratic success in Bhutan that reflects well on that country and on the entire South Asian region.
The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary