(Excerpt from an article I wrote for Business Bhutan’s National Day Supplement on December 15 )
While prime ministers and presidents kept changing in the region and some staying on for too long, Bhutan was the best student of geopolitics in South Asia. Each nation was a touchstone onto which Bhutan could test its own trajectory and aspirations. The region has been a perfect classroom with workable political models, military coups, assassinations, unpredictable political climate, and a huge population from diverse religious, social and economic backgrounds. Taking advantage of being geographically aloof at the same time being able to closely watch developments in the region, Bhutan could take its own time to pursue its unique path forward.
Before Bhutan began its pursuit of happiness, it began a pursuit toward democracy. Just that it was not garbed in a slogan. But a constant transitioning was happening through the establishment of institutions, small and big. The process of returning power to the people after it was invested with the first Druk Gyalpo didn’t take even 50 years to start. The institution of a parliament by the third Druk Gyalpo, the motion he introduced to allow the parliament to impeach him and hastening the spread of modern education to create an informed society were all steps toward full democracy.
With the fourth Druk Gyalpo ascending the dragon throne, he took the journey to democracy to a different level. For him, this pursuit went along with conscious efforts toward nation building. During his reign, global attention began to turn toward Bhutan; this had to be handled with care. At the same time, the friendly relation with India had to be nurtured. For the first time, young people equipped with modern education entered the civil service in large numbers. They would be the foot soldiers for a nation, rooted in tradition but in transition. They would build the steel frame for a future democratic government.
In the first decade of his reign, Bhutan began celebrating its National Day – a day designated for national stocktaking. While a nation has its own collective consciousness in its spiritual heritage, customs, practices etc, it needs institutions like the national day to document its political memory. The establishment and continuance of democratic bodies like the parliament furthers this, but people are not directly part of it despite having their elected members there. Whereas, on a national day, it’s time for the citizens to come together with their lawmakers and the King to reflect on the nation.
For Bhutan, every December 17 acts as a milestone, a mirror, to see where the nation has reached, the pace it has to take, and where it has to go.
On every December 17, there is reflection, hope and caution. His Majesty King Jigme Khesar, while commending on Bhutan’s successful transition to democracy, also cautioned in his National Day address last year, “The true test shall be whether we have the will and commitment to sustain a well functioning and strong vibrant democracy for all time to come.”
And rightly so, media reports say these are testing times for Bhutanese democracy and its institutions including the constitutional bodies and the parliament. Especially, this year, the final full year for the first elected government, has been eventful. These transitioning moments will be watched closely by the world.
As the country develops and its people become richer, great attention has to be given to the gap between the rich and poor and the need for fair distribution of opportunity. His Majesty’s kidu initiative shows his deep concern on equitable growth.
That’s why, at times of an increasing interest in GNH around the world, His Majesty has made sure he pitches the idea home. In the 2010 National Day speech he said one of Bhutan’s aspirations is “equitable socio-economic growth to achieve GNH.” The fulfillment of GNH at home is as important as other nations appreciating and adopting it.
This December reminds us of the intense political activity of December 2007. While there were just two parties then, today there are more aspirants. Some have applied for registration while others are waiting for the time to ripe. With more players in the fray, one concern has been on getting capable candidates who could be lawmakers.
“We have a strong, committed parliament today, but my worry is, in the future, whether our best and the brightest people will come forward in order to serve the nation through politics. After all, for democracy to succeed, we will always need strong and capable people in parliament,” His Majesty said in his 2011 National Day address.
For this nation in transition and its political parties, this message from the king is important.