By Barun Das Gupta
The final results of the two-phase third general elections in Bhutan, published on Friday, must have come as a rude shock to the South Bloc. The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay suffered a humiliating defeat in the first round and was eliminated from contesting the second and final round. The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) won 30 out of the 47 seats in the Bhutan Parliament, followed by Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) with 17 seats. To add to New Delhi’s worries, the DPT is considered to be a pro-China party. As leader of the winning DNT, Dasho Tshering Tobgay is slated to be the next prime minister.
While more detailed data are necessary to analyse the factors responsible for the defeat of the PDP – the facile explanation that the Bhutanese electorate changes the ruling party in every election is more facile than real – there is little doubt that its pro-India image was one of the reasons for its alienation from the people. The paradox is that while India thinks it is ‘protecting’ Bhutan from the Chinese with its imposing military presence, the Bhutanese want not to be involved in the Sino-Indian rivalry in any way. Bhutan also wants to establish direct diplomatic relations with other countries – a job that is now being done by the Bhutanese embassy in New Delhi – but South Block frowns upon the idea.
There was a ring of unreality about this general election. Bhutan’s foreign policy and foreign relations, especially with its two giant neighbours India and China, were uppermost in the minds of the Bhutanese voter but by a strange ‘understanding’ it was agreed by the contesting parties before the poll campaign started that they would not raise ‘politically sensitive issues’ like national security and foreign policy in their campaign speeches. But the debate was nevertheless carried on in social media platforms like WeChat. Complaints were lodged with the Election Commission and in several cases the ‘guilty’ had to pay fines.
Last year there was an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam that lasted for 73 days. The Chinese soldiers did not leave Doklam but Indian soldiers returned to their earlier position. From India’s point of view the only ‘gain’ was that the Chinese stopped building the road in the disputed territory that was leading to the Sinchela pass and then over the Doklam plateau to the Doka La pass. The Chinese troops stopped only about 70 metres away from the Indian border post on the Sikkim border. Since then the Chinese have reinforced their positions in Doklam by digging trenches, bringing in more troops, building helipads, etc. India has the logistic advantage of being on top while the Chinese are down below.
Speaking strategically, China is not in an unenviable position in Doklam. Doklam has to be reached through the Chumbi Valley where all the surrounding hill features are dominated by the Indian army. Any Chinese military adventure here will make the Chinese troops sitting ducks for India’s heavy artillery barrage, apart from being pounded from the sky. If the Chinese choose to retaliate, there is the risk of a local war turning into a full-fledged war.
The reality is that Bhutan does not want either the lion’s hug or the dragon’s embrace. But India’s stakes are too high for its own security to leave Bhutan alone, Willy-nilly, Bhutan has been embroiled in Sino-Indian strategic and diplomatic rivalry.
India’s “taking Bhutan for granted” attitude has helped China spread its influence among the Bhutanese people. The rise of China has brought about a sea-change in our neighbourhood. India now cannot take any country for granted, whether it is Nepal or Bhutan or Sri Lanka or Myanmar or the Maldives.
Bhutan’s markets have been flooded with Chinese goods. A Xinhua report noted with obvious satisfaction that despite there being no diplomatic ties between China and Bhutan, “Chinese goods are making good business in Bhutan’s capital city Thimphu. From footwear to clothing, kitchen utensils and brocades to woven carpets, almost every Chinese product is available in shops lined up at Thjimphu’s lower town of centenary market.”
There is the boundary problem also. About two dozen rounds of boundary talks have been held between Bhutan and China but no tangible progress has been made. Here again, India’s security concerns are said to be a factor that has cast its shadow on the negotiation process.
Indo-Bhutan cooperation in the field of development needs more traction. India can help Bhutan in developing its immense hydro-electric potential. After becoming prime minister, Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of a 600 MW hydropower project in Kholongchu in June, 2014. But a joint venture company of SIVN (India) and Druk Green (Bhutan), the Kholongchu Hydro Energy Ltd, was registered only in June, next year. But little progress has been made. Reportedly, the Bhutan Government has some reservations about the concession agreement about the export of power to India. Questions such as this have to be addressed quickly and solved.
The election manifesto of the DNT which has been just voted to power has this significant paragraph: “The message from our People is clear. Irrespective of the election outcome, development related work must proceed as . . . in the Plan documents. The People state that these Plan documents were drafted based on decisions taken by GT and DT to meet the People’s demands. The People strongly conveyed the message that they do not want populist handouts and short-term gifts from the central government. They know very well that these short-term gimmicks have little impact on their long-term future and instead people from across the country were consulted to draft¬ this manifesto. . . . in the last 10 years of democracy the government has built a mountain of debt for future generations to bear. The People still uphold the motto of Rang-go Rang-drup (Self Reliance) and will not tolerate politicians compromising this vision.”
The people from across the country, meaning policy-makers in New Delhi, will have to take this into account while fashioning India’s Bhutan policy. India will now, indeed, have to tread on thin ice in Bhutan. Any show of big-brotherly attitude will be extremely unwise.