As campaigning for the final round of elections to the Bhutanese National Assembly gathered pace about a week ago, the country’s Election Commission imposed a Ngultrum 12,000 (around USD200) fine against a nominee for the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) or the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, contesting from Samdrup Jhongkar, for raising the “uncomfortable” India-China issue.
But it is not just the DPT that has had to bear the brunt of such penalties that are said to violate and vitiate the election campaign spirit in Bhutan. Candidates representing the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), the DPT’s rival party, have also been slapped with pecuniary fines for voicing concerns, on online chat platforms, over the negative impact on Bhutan’s relations with neighbouring countries, should the DPT win the elections. The DPT’s election manifesto declares that it will “remain committed to maintaining and furthering the excellent relations with the people and the Government of India”, it is widely viewed as a party that is favourably disposed towards China.
The Election Commission has stepped in on each occasion to nip this particular campaign issue in the bud, indicating that any reference to India or China and the rivalry between the two countries that came to the fore in the backdrop of the Doklam dispute last year, is a strict no-no. According to Bhutanese officials and political observers, the Election Commission took suomotu cognizance of such alleged violation of the election code of conduct.
But such “sensitivity” about a fraught issue in the final phase of an election, which could go to the wire, indicates how the formerly tiny Himalayan kingdom, that took to democracy in 2008, is wary of both India and China. A Press Release issued by the Election Commission on October 15 listed four of 13 poll-related disputes as linked to “relations with India”, which informed sources in Thimpu said, indicated the “extreme nervousness” among the ruling dispensation, including senior bureaucrats and other government functionaries, over “Bhutan being caught in a power-play between India and China”.
While the India-China military stand-off involving Doklam remains fresh on the minds of the Bhutanese, political analysts took pains to explain to the South Asian Monitor that while Thimphu functions under the omnipresent—and sometimes “oppressive”—shadow of New Delhi, it is also within its rights to make some overtures to Beijing. According to a senior and influential Thimphu-based journalist, who enjoys close ties with the monarchy and did not want to be identified, said: “While Bhutan is happy to keep its carefully preserved, exemplary friendship with India intact, New Delhi should not be too concerned with Thimphu warming-up to Beijing.”
Even as Bhutan and China have no formal diplomatic relations, barring the official-level interactions over “pending border issues”, there has been some “opening up” by both sides. “It is perceived here in Thimphu that China is interested in gradually warming up to Bhutan. Chinese and Bhutanese diplomats hold talks on unresolved issues. In July, Chinese deputy foreign minister Kong Xuanyou, along with officials, was in Bhutan on a three-day visit. Over the past two or three years, Bhutan has also shown keenness to do business with China, although at a low level,” an analyst said.
“Why shouldn’t Bhutan take advantage of the economic benefits that might accrue to it by seeking some Chinese involvement in its economy? The more Bhutan remains dependent on one country, the less importance it will enjoy relative to other countries in South Asia,” the analyst said, adding that “India could tone down its jealousy and yet remain our Number 1 friend”.
Slightly over a year after the Doklam stand-off, knowledgeable Bhutanese sources hinted that their country’s “silence”, even as the armies of India and China faced each other on the disputed plateau to the southwest of the country, was a reflection of its displeasure over New Delhi’s disregard for the independent talks that Thimphu was holding with Beijing over the patch of land. The 73-day China-India faceoff over Doklam put the spotlight on the issue last year like never before and yet it is not an election issue now as the DPT and DNT approach the end of the election campaign.
Sources said that when the Bhutanese parliament did not ratify the Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement, which would have been a singular move to regulate and ease the movement of overland passenger, personal and cargo traffic, it was another instance of Thimphu seeking to exercise a degree of independence in foreign relations and an expression of a “different” stand.
Indian diplomats in Thimphu maintain an enigmatic silence on Bhutan’s elections. The Bhutanese political class as well as the bureaucracy are loath to discuss the “very incremental warming-up of ties” between Thimphu and Beijing. It is widely believed that the monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, has warm relations with the Indian establishment. Even as the DPT is perceived to be “pro-China”, there is a growing perception among the Bhutanese people, including some influential political leaders, that India should give their country “some breathing space so that we are able to get the respect of other nations”.
While there is widespread belief that “under no circumstance would Bhutan give up its special ties” with India, there is also a growing recognition that just as the country is making incremental advancement towards greater democracy, this trend itself would pave the way for “progressive relations” with China.