Bhutan’s democratic transition and ties to India

Punakha Dzong, the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955

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Editor's note:

Sambandh Scholars Speak is a series of blog posts that feature evidence-based research on South Asia with a focus on regional studies and cross-border connectivity. The series engages with authors of recent books, articles, and reports on India and its neighbouring countries.

In this edition, Dr. Constantino Xavier interviews Dr. Sonam Kinga on his book “Democratic Transition in Bhutan: Political Contests as Moral Battles published in October 2019 by Routledge India.

The Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan offer comparative insights on how traditional Hindu and Buddhist monarchies have witnessed different political fates. Bhutan, in particular, stands out as an extraordinary and successful example of royal, top-down, and managed democratization during the 2000s.

Based on his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kyoto, in Japan, Dr. Sonam Kinga’s deeply researched book argues that, beyond foresight of a progressive leader, the Bhutanese monarchy also succeeded because its dynastic legitimacy was derived from a modern (and not feudal) contract with the Bhutanese people, in 1907. The book rejects the simplistic accounts of a sudden change in 2007, when the fourth king abdicated in favour of his son and a directly elected parliament, under a new democratic constitution.

Kinga’s ethnographic method is eclectic and personal, since he was deeply involved in the democratisation process and an elected member of the Council, the parliament’s upper house, between 2008 and 2013. His detailed case studies offer important insights into Bhutan’s rapidly changing socio-economic, political, and foreign policy dimensions, with growing implications for India that are not always appreciated.

Q1. Your book reviews Bhutan’s “exceptional” democratisation process, triggered by the Fourth King’s “critical decision of leadership” in 2005 (p. 21). But you also recognise that democratisation “has begun the transformation of socio-political relationship in Bhutanese society at multiple levels” (p. 270). Has this also manifested through political populism and nationalism in Bhutan?

Bhutan did not experience the kind of nationalism that spread in Europe or in Afro-Asian countries. There are two important reasons. One, Bhutan had been fortunate to have the benefit of enlightened leadership rooted in our society and in the “nation.” Nationalism in Europe generally expressed in movements against monarchical regimes, which were in existence for hundreds of years.

On the contrary, the Bhutanese monarchy is new, having been founded in 1907 when monarchies elsewhere began to disappear. It was also founded based on the modern idea of popular consent and written contract. Moreover, it became the agency of progress and modernisation.

Two, Bhutan was never colonised. Therefore, the formation of its national identity did not take place within the context of freedom struggles or wars of independence. It took place within a specific geographic zone and cultural space with strong Buddhist influences. Bhutanese nationalism, if we can call that, expressed in fighting series of Tibetan invasions from the north for over a century, British in the South and more recently the illegal immigrants and Indian militants in 1990s.

The transformation of socio-political relationship has been driven less by nationalism and more by the political space and opportunities that democracy provides. However, political populism had begun to manifest as political leaders project persona over policies, frame elections as contests for the humble against the powerful, and subtly play ethnic and religious cards to garner votes. Nonetheless, there has been a move to more mature politics in recent years.

Q2. You speak of the crisis in the early 1990s, separating between “genuine Bhutanese Nepalis” and “illegal immigrants” from Nepal (pp. 16-17). Have Bhutan’s new democratic institutions helped to accommodate ethno-linguistic and religious diversity?

The new democratic institutions have built upon and broadened existing political spaces for accommodating representation of diverse ethnic mix of Bhutanese society. Today, the five southern districts with significant population of Nepali ethnicity are well-represented in the local and central governments as well as in the parliament.

For example, two of the four municipal governments have elected mayors, who are Bhutanese of Nepalese ethnicity. In the present National Assembly, nine MPs are of Nepalese ethnicity, two of whom are cabinet ministers. Likewise, MPs of Nepalese ethnicity have served as ministers in both the first and second governments. In the National Council today, four among the 20 elected members are of Nepalese ethnicity. In both cases, they constitute nearly 20% of elected members.

No one could imagine only a few years ago that anyone from a remote highland nomadic community could become a minister. That happened in 2018! We have also seen women being given cabinet positions after 2008 although we need to see more of them in government.

Q3. India assisted in the 2007 mock elections, by offering electronic voting machines and also sending observers, including its Deputy Election Commissioner. Was this pure goodwill, or do you think India also had a strategic interest in Bhutan’s successful democratisation?

Bhutan enjoys a very special relationship with India. This has been nurtured carefully by leaders from both sides over the decades. Of course, there are occasionally irritants of varying nature and proportion, and the times demand that we deal with them with greater sensitivity and sophistication.

It was Bhutan who invited observers not only from India but other countries and international organisations during the mock as well as actual elections held in 2007/2008, 2013, and 2018. The success of democracy in Bhutan is of interest not only to India but to the global community who have experienced in recent years the receding of democracy and the rise of populism. Bhutan’s peaceful transition to democracy in a historically unprecedented manner and the successful consolidation of democratic institutions and values in the last decade must be situated and appreciated within the larger context of regional and global developments of our times.

India’s strategic interest in Bhutan precedes the introduction of democracy. Bhutan’s geographic location between two Asian giants and the nature of the relationship between them gives it strategic importance beyond its demographic and geographic size.  The success of democracy in Bhutan must translate to greater political stability, economic prosperity, and inter-ethnic harmony. A sovereign, peaceful, stable, and progressive Bhutan is of interest to India’s geo-strategy.

Q4. Your fascinating analysis of the 2013 DPT convention shows how there is growing anxiety about Bhutan’s reliance on India. More recently, your parliament rejected a regional motor vehicle agreement and also raised fees for Indian tourists. Will this hinder Bhutan’s connectivity initiatives with India and the region?

We cannot generalise the perception of one political party as a representative view of the entire nation. However, there are growing anxieties, particularly among the younger generation. Bhutan depends a lot on India for goods and services as well as investments. But this has not been a one-way traffic. India also benefits from its investments in Bhutan in ways that are both tangible and intangible. Realising the goal of self-reliance has been Bhutan’s policy for a long time. A self-reliant and self-sufficient Bhutan will still prioritise its special relationship with India.

A self-reliant and self-sufficient Bhutan will still prioritise its special relationship with India.

For example, Bhutan’s physical connectivity with the rest of the world is through India. Hence, rejection of the motor vehicle agreement was not a rejection of the idea or need for connectivity. There were concerns about the exponential increase in traffic on Bhutan’s limited road infrastructure as well as environmental impacts. On the other hand, we cannot forget that Bhutan’s parliament has also ratified many Bills and conventions that concern India and Bhutan.

The raising of Sustainable Development Fee for regional tourists including Indians has been done to ensure that Bhutan’s time-tested tourism policy of high value, low volume is upheld. Its intent as well as the manner in which it was done has been respected by the government and people of India. The fee that has been introduced is very nominal compared to the one that other international tourists pay. On the other hand, tourism is only one among other arrangements and practices which are in place to enhance people to people connectivity between Bhutan and India.

About the expert:

313Dr. Sonam Kinga works at the Royal Research and Advisory Council in Thimphu. He teaches Bhutan’s Political History at the Royal Institute of Governance and Strategic Studies located in Bhutan. He was a Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies at Kyoto University in Japan (2019), from where he had earlier obtained his Ph.D. He also had been a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE) in Tokyo (2002).

He participated in the parliamentary elections during Bhutan’s historic transition to democracy in 2008. He represented the eastern district of Tashigang in the National Council for two five-year terms. During his tenure as Member of Parliament, he served as both the Deputy Chairperson and Chairperson of the National Council.

His research interest includes Bhutanese history, oral literature, state-society relations and democratic politics. His works include Changes in Bhutanese Social Structure published in 2002 by IDE in Japan, Polity Kingship and Democracy published by Bhutan’s Ministry of Education in 2009 and Democratic Transition in Bhutan published by Routledge in London and New Delhi in 2019.

Email: [email protected]