In the midst of Bhutan's national elections in 2013, India unexpectedly cut the LPG/kerosene subsidy. The incumbent party, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa, led by Bhutan's first democratically elected Prime Minister, Jigme Yoeser Thinley, lost the elections badly. And Thinley found himself out of a job, replaced by a man who promised to stay on the right side of India. Many commentators have linked India's decision to a handshake by Thinley with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of a summit in Rio in 2012. The meeting had not been coordinated with India, and since India shelters Bhutan within its security architecture, this meeting was seen as the deepest betrayal. To the conspiracy mongers, India's withdrawal of subsidy was a brilliant and sinister move by a powerful and intolerant neighbour to control and dominate the tiny, landlocked Bhutan.
Like any good conspiracy theory, large parts of this story are true. Thinley did not coordinate his meeting with the Chinese with India, violating Article 2 of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007. It did upset India, maybe enough for India to express its displeasure. Nevertheless that is not why Thinley's party lost his election. Bhutan has two rounds of elections, with the second round a run off between the two biggest parties.
In the first round the DPT received 44.5 per cent of the votes; the three Opposition parties received the rest. In the second round the DPT received slightly more, just over 45 per cent of the votes, but as the Opposition parties had transferred their vote to the one remaining party in the elections, the People's Democratic Party, the DPT lost. India's short suspension of the LPG/kerosene subsidy, which happened between the two rounds of elections, resulting in a slightly increased vote share in favour of the DPT. The impact had been minimal - and in the wrong direction.
What a lot of people observing Bhutan from afar had chosen to ignore was that under the leadership of the DPT, Bhutan had experienced a rolling economic crisis. Although not necessarily of the making of the DPT, it had been handled badly. The Bhutanese currency, the Ngultrum, is pegged at 1:1 to the Indian rupee, but at the border it was being traded at 5:6, and as Bhutan imports more than 80 per cent of its goods from India, the crisis hit people in their pocket - at the cost of vegetables. Furthermore during the first term, both the Home Minister and the Speaker of the Legislature were convicted on corruption charges, despite the Attorney General appointed by the DPT refusing to undertake the prosecution. The newly established newspapers spread the news of both the economic and political problems to the public at large. India was not the only one unhappy with Thinley, but ascribing his defeat to India allowed Thinley to portray himself as a martyr, and to avoid acknowledging his mistakes and growing unpopularity.
From Bhutan to Nepal
It is important to remember this example now as we look at India-Nepal relations. Our relations with our neighbour are at an all-time low. The spectacle of both India and Nepal accusing each other of misbehaviour in the UN is hardly pleasant. For the last two months the Nepali government has accused India of enforcing a "blockade", while India has maintained that the "blockade" is an internal problem, with Nepal's Madhesi and Tharu populations protesting against unfair clauses in the newly promulgated Nepali Constitution. Nepal's elite, foremost among them two of Nepal's six deputy ministers Kamal Thapa and CP Mainali, have alleged that India is using Madhesis as a fifth column to undermine Nepal's sovereignty. The insinuation is that because Madhesis have ties of family and friends in India, their loyalty is divided.
This is incredibly stupid. No section of the Nepali polity has as many and as strong ties of family and interest than the Kathmandu elite. These include the many ties through marriages between Nepali and Indian aristocrats. It also includes the many, many senior officers that man Nepal's armed forces, that have thrown training at the Indian National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy. It includes the thousands of Gorkhas who have served in the Indian armed forces, and their families that continue to receive pensions to this day.
If India could so easily call upon its contacts, its loyalists who are tied to India by ties of blood and gold, why aren't the aristocracy and military of Nepal dancing to India's tune? The answer is simple. The Constitution passed by the Nepali Constituent Assembly discriminates against the Madhesis and Tharus. It discriminates in favour of the aristocracy and the military. Therefore the Madhesis and Tharus protest, and the military and aristocracy do not.
Where do we go from here?
The belief in India's power among Nepalis is a convenient way for the current Nepali government to pass off its failures on India. Unfortunately, India has only exacerbated this situation by acting as it too believes it has immense power in Nepal. Despite almost 70 years of evidence that the Kathmandu elite is willing to do anything except share power - including endure a grinding, decade-long civil war - India allowed itself to be lulled into complacency that this would not happen this time around. This willfull blindness was shattered when the terms in the Nepali Constitution were revealed.
Here India committed its second mistake, reinforcing the first. By sending the Indian foreign secretary to scold the Nepali government, India showed only arrogance. What was the government thinking; that India was so powerful that it could compel another country to rewrite terms of its Constitution at short notice? Of course, this was rejected, but this unfortunate demonstration of hubris lends credence to the belief that India would use force to compel Nepal to its desires. The foolish belief in India's power has worked against both Nepal and India's interests.
If we are to move forward successfully it must be with a true understanding of both India's power and its limits. India has to convince Nepal's government that it cannot pull strings to make people rise up, and then sit down. This can only happen if the interests of those that are protesting are addressed. It must be taken for granted that these concerns will only be addressed in part, but they must be addressed. It is in the interest of both India and Nepal that peace and stability return to Nepal. It is past time that the leadership of both countries start working towards that, rather than trying to wrestle with the phantom of India's assumed omnipotence.