As Bhutan heads to the first round of its general elections on September 15 to decide which two of the four political parties in the country will contest the final round on October 18, the fear of Indian interference has emerged. There are discussions in social media about why it would be in India’s interest to have a new inexperienced government in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu once again.

These discussions are the result of an incident that came in the midst of the 2013 election process, when the Indian government suddenly withdrew its subsidy for the kerosene and cooking gas it supplies to the Himalayan nation.

Though India restored the subsidy a month later, the people of Bhutan saw this decision as direct interference by New Delhi in their internal affairs. Observers said that New Delhi’s motive was to make sure that the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, then led by Jigmi Y Thinley, would not return to power. The subsidy cut led to panic in Bhutan as the price of fuel and cooking gas shot up overnight. The Opposition party made a meal of the issue saying Bhutan had lost its closest ally. The result was a big win for the Opposition.

Third general election

Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy in 2008, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, its fourth monarch, decided to change the country’s political system to a democratic constitutional monarchy. In 2006, he abdicated and installed his eldest son as the new king. His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned in 2008, the same year the people of Bhutan elected the first democratic government.

This will be Bhutan’s third general election.

Bhutan’s Constitution allows any number of registered political parties to contest the primary round, but only two parties that secure the highest and second highest number of votes proceed to the general round. The winner of that round forms the government, while the loser takes up the role of the Opposition.

Four political parties have registered to contest the primary round. These are the People’s Democratic Party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party. The 2008 and 2013 elections saw the People’s Democratic Party and Druk Phuensum Tshogpa making it to the general round, with the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa forming the first democratically elected government in 2008, and the People’s Democratic Party winning in 2013.

Electoral laws require all registered political parties to submit a tentative list of candidates and a letter of intent to the Election Commission if they wish to contest the primary round. All four parties have now introduced their 47 candidates. They have all held national conventions and are now in full campaign mode.

Bhutanese voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station in Paro on May 31, 2013. (Photo credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP).

Four parties, similar promises

Tshering Tobgay, prime minister from 2013 through 2018, leads the People’s Democratic Party. He is campaigning for continuity. At the presidential debate on August 26, Tobgay claimed that that his government had empowered the people at the grassroots “with more authority, responsibility, and resources”.

The former agriculture and forests minister, Pema Gyamtsho, leads Druk Phuensum Tshogpa. Gyamtsho was the Opposition leader from 2013 through 2018. A savvy development worker, he is enticing voters with the idea of national self-reliance by 2025. An uphill task as it certainly seems, he feels his party has the experience to weather the challenges. He is also promising more media freedom.

The Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, and Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party are the newbies. Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa contested the primary round in 2013 along with a now disbanded party called the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa. It lost the contest then and saw some of its capable candidates – including the party president and vice president – defect to the People’s Democratic Party. Many voters still doubt its independence with some calling it the People’s Democratic Party ‘B’ team.

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa’s president Lotey Tshering is a prominent medical surgeon. He feels social inequity is widening and his party is therefore campaigning on the promise to “narrow the gap between haves and have-nots”.

The Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party’s maverick president, Neten Zangmo, served as Bhutan’s first anti-corruption commissioner and has said her party’s main goal is to root out systemic corruption. She has been repeatedly reminding voters to fight those who coerce and intimidate them during campaigns.

All four parties do not have any distinct ideology. Like in the past two elections, they are campaigning on short-term pledges – roads, schools, drinking water, human-wildlife conflict, electricity, mobile services, and so on. On a broader level, all have said they will fight corruption but none has explained how.

Corruption is deeply entrenched in all sectors in Bhutan. Favoritism, nepotism, bribery, abuse of functions, breach of procurement norms, among others, continue to be reported as major corrupt practices in all sectors.

Political parties have also not explained how they will fix bigger national issues like external debt, youth unemployment, crime, disaster management, climate change, rural poverty, and trade deficit. No party has developed a comprehensive framework on these pressing issues.

The People’s Democratic Party’s Tshering Tobgay is seen as a dependable pro-India politician, unlike former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley of the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa who was keen on establishing closer ties with China. Thinley’s meeting with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in June 2012 on the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil had drawn displeasure from India. The nationalist Indian media spread such panic that many Indians thought Bhutan was on the verge of severing its ties with India.

Will New Delhi interfere again?

Bhutan’s new dreams are based on the belief among its educated citizenry that the country has come of age and that, as an independent sovereign state, it is ready for self-determination. Many Bhutanese feel the country must diversify its foreign engagements while continuing to maintain its strong ties with India. Further, the revised Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty opens up new possibilities for Bhutan. The subsidy cut of 2013 was therefore tantamount to the Indian government taking Bhutan hostage at a critical juncture of its political life.

The result was a wave of anti-India sentiment that year. The rise in such sentiment has also to do with insensitive remarks made by a number of Indian diplomats and senior figures, often at critical periods. For example, at the peak of the India-China standoff in Doklam in August 2017, an Indian newspaper asked former foreign secretary Shyam Saran if India was putting itself in the way of Bhutan’s desire to expand its foreign relations. Saran’s response did not go down well with the Bhutanese. He said: “…it is really for Bhutan to decide what its comfort level is, in terms of expanding its own engagement with the rest of the world…The only thing which the Indian side would like to be assured of is that there should be no surprises in terms of the move that Bhutan makes. That is the only requirement.”

For now, though, there are no overt signals of interference from New Delhi. In fact, Bhutan and India are celebrating 50 years of diplomatic ties this year, and it will be a shame if some ugly, politicised incident were to play the ultimate spoilsport.