Jigme Y. Thinley was in March elected the first prime minister of Bhutan in the first free and fair elections that transformed the Himalayan kingdom, also known as The Land of the Thunder Dragon, into the world’s youngest democracy.
Thinley’s party, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), or the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, won 45 out of 47 seats, trouncing Sangay Ngedup of the People’s Democratic Party. But, as the Bhutanese PM told Mint, the influence of the King still remains overwhelming in Bhutan. Edited excerpts:
How does it feel to be the first elected prime minister of Bhutan?
A sense of great responsibility, certainly the greatest challenge that I have encountered, and a very humbling experience. I pray that I will not fail.
And some fun as well?
No, not at all, in fact ever since I joined politics I’ve had very little fun and I miss it! (laughs).
But Bhutan is such a lovely country, such easy-going people, why aren’t you having fun at your new job?
The business of establishing a party is tough, especially when one has no experience and no examples to follow. Then again, we joined politics rather late, by the time the other party had been formed, established, and elections were not very far away. And so it was very hectic. And Bhutan is not really an easy place to cover, a lot of it has to be done on foot. So, it was physically and mentally arduous.
Amicable neighbour: Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmi Y. Thinley posing for the media on his arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, on 14 July. Photograph: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
After the elections, the responsibility of establishing a new government was very time-consuming. I am hoping that maybe some months from now I will be able to take some time out.
People walked for miles and came to vote in your first elections, it seemed like a very unusual first election…
It was very moving and heartening at the same time. Such demonstrations of one’s faith and of one’s realization of the importance of the vote, convinced me that His Majesty the fourth King was right, and that the time had come for democracy. There was this story of a woman who walked 500km from one end of Bhutan to another, and she was in her sixties.
Did the people ask you any difficult questions?
Not really. We were voted into government because people wanted continuity and they saw continuity assured through us.
Meaning, the King had given you his blessing?
No, but that my party fielded five old ministers, five old hands who had served the King as ministers. So the people saw this government would ensure continuity of the wise policies of the King, and that change would be progressive.
So what happens to the King, does he quietly ride into the sunset?
The fourth King, who is the architect of Bhutanese democracy, has already relinquished his position. He is living in quiet, contented retirement and I do believe he is pleased with his work. His son, His Majesty Jigme Singye Khesar Wangchuk, is now on the throne and the Constitution provides for important functions that the King must continue to discharge, both ceremonial and substantial.
How do you see this relationship between the King and a newly elected government unfolding in a country which has a lot of respect for the monarchy?
The party will always be respectful of His Majesty the King and very conscious of the fact that the King enjoys the tremendous love and reverence of the people and represents the ultimate social and psychological anchor of the Bhutanese people.
In the event that something terribly wrong happens, the King is the moral authority, the symbol of the unity of the Bhutanese people, and it is in his hands that national security will continue to remain.
So now that you are in party politics can I ask you about the Queen’s brother, how did he lose so badly in the elections?
I would not know and I would not even try and attempt to answer this question. One’s fortune in politics, and some say love, is not predictable.
In this first visit to India, how do you take the Indo-Bhutanese relationship forward?
Ours is a relationship constrained by the limitations of geography, from our isolation of centuries. From there we have grown and literally, India has chaperoned us into adulthood. And as adults, both of us have found meaning and continuity in the relationship. India is involved as a very committed partner in Bhutan’s development, including supporting Bhutan in spreading its wings, in the conduct and establishment of its relations. India supported and sponsored Bhutan in its candidature to the UN (United Nations). This mutually beneficial relationship also includes the exploitation of Bhutan’s considerable hydropower resources.
We look at this resource not only as a Bhutanese resource, but as a shared resource with India, which we have agreed to develop.
So by 2020, we would have generated an additional 10,000MW of power, through seven power projects, all of which will be exported to India.
Did you chafe under this chaperoning, were you irritated by it sometimes?
I don’t think our relationship can be exaggerated. The Bhutanese never felt claustrophobic about their geopolitical location, as some small neighbours do when they are located between two large countries. The Big Brother syndrome is a disease that we have never suffered from, and that is because we were led by a King who was, and is, very wise and very realistic about the realities of Bhutan’s location and its limitations. We accepted these geopolitical realities.
Instead of being pessimistic and trying to wriggle out of it, which we cannot — many countries waste so much time getting rid of these realities — but we did not do that. The King, instead, decided to look at the opportunities that our location had to offer, the proximity that we enjoy with India. And there was a deliberate, very methodical effort to gain the confidence of India, of its leadership, because we saw that was important. And we succeeded.
We never thought of that effort to be wasteful. And that has paid off. I think today India does have tremendous confidence in Bhutan. India knows that Bhutan will never do anything harmful to its interests, and as a result India has also been sensitive to Bhutan. This partnership has been mutually satisfying, with neither party complaining about the other.
Can you compare the Bhutanese and Nepalese examples, considering both of you are Himalayan kingdoms? But with Nepal India has always had such a strained relationship…
I hope things will improve. And I hope Nepal will find inspiration from the kind of relationship Bhutan has developed with India and how it has been so beneficial for Bhutan. This could be the same for Nepal as well.
Bhutan’s geostrategic location between India and China, do you feel a pull between the two countries?
No, Bhutan has correct and good relations with China. There is this forbidding barrier of the Himalayas, and we are on the southern slopes. Our relations with China have been greatly influenced by this factor, that is the reality of India.