A fledgling democracy sandwiched between two competing regional powers, China and India, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is on the cusp of a major political change.
In a fiercely fought elections, The People Democratic Party (PDP) led by the outgoing “pro-Indian” Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, failed to qualify for the final phase of the upcoming third National Assembly elections. The newly formed Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP) too performed poorly. As a consequence, the face-off on October 18 will be between the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) in the 47 constituencies of this tiny country. According to the official results of the first phase, the DNT was closely followed by the DPT.
The results of the primary round of elections were unexpected as many party members of PDP were quite confident of at least getting into the final phase of elections. This assumption was based on its party’s performance in the last five years. The PDP had a lot to show: they brought the country’s crippled economy back on track; implemented the Eleventh Plan Report; launched an anti-corruption movement; created new employment opportunities; reduced fuel prices. Despite taking all these pro-people steps and having high profile candidates to fight the polls, the outcome proved to be disastrous. The raging anti-incumbency against PDP in eastern Dzongkhags hastened their defeat.
International media had reported that one of the reasons for the loss of PDP was the 73-day stand-off between India and China at the Doklam plateau in 2017. During the election campaign, the Doklam issue didn’t seem to get much traction, but it seems the minds of voters were made and they held PDP responsible for a situation that seemed to have compromised the country’s sovereignty.
In the past, DPT has been in power from 2008-2013. However, the relationship between India and Bhutan dipped during this tenure since its leader was considered closer to China. In the 2018 parliament elections, domestic issues have taken a big share in both the parties’ respective election manifestoes and the issues related to foreign policy didn’t qualify as agenda setting components. The DPT seeks to continue the general policy of Bhutan to have extremely close and friendly relations with India. DPT in its manifesto under the sub-title, “Foreign Relation: Holding our place in the world”, stated that the party “Remain committed to maintaining and furthering the excellent relations with the people and the Government of India; carry forward the exemplary and mutually beneficial cooperation that is the hallmark of our relations and deepen our economic ties.” Interestingly, it doesn’t mention how the party is seeking its relationship with China. However, DNT didn’t have any separate segment on foreign relations, but, both the parties’ manifestoes stress about relationship with India several times. Unemployed youth, corruption, poverty in rural areas and economy are few of the key areas that remain as internal challenges for the next government, and DNT and DPT have significantly highlighted these issues. In terms of security matters, Bhutan has relied on India for several decades to meet its various challenges, mostly arising due to existing border disputes with China.
However, India’s status as an indispensable and reliable ally has taken a significant beating. During the 2013 election campaign, India withdrew subsidies for cooking gas as well as kerosene imports- to make an example of Bhutan for trying to be close to China. This move didn’t go well for New Delhi and Bhutanese called it as interference in their internal affairs. Questions of sovereignty were also raised as well. As Bhutan’s trade is largely with India, which is helping the Himalayan country in a lot of infrastructure and hydropower projects, the punitive action by New Delhi against Thimphu hurt the people. The relations nosedived as they did in the case of India and Nepal. Problems with India enlarged the influence of China in Nepal as well as in this Himalayan Kingdom. Now, balancing its relationship with India and China would be a major challenge for Bhutan’s next government. India, too, would have to quickly strategize, under these new circumstances, how best it can work with the new government so that it does not end up being in a tight embrace of the Dragon.