Poll campaigning – the Bhutanese way!

By Meenakshi Iyer

Thimphu: The landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, winding its way through the intricate tapestry of hillocks, comes nowhere close to a country election-bound.

Blaring loudspeakers, colourful election posters, pasted just about anywhere and everywhere, mammoth sized billboards of political candidates at every second crossing, pamphlets that seems to be thicker than a national newspaper and graffiti blotched walls screaming, “Vote for us!”

A true blue Indian, or for that matter a South Asian, is used to all of this and much more. For example, in India, the slugfest between the ruling party and the opposition for the general election in 2014 has taken roots much ahead of time.

But Bhutan, unlike any other South Asian nation, stays peaceful and tranquil even with its final ballot just a day away. The only witness to an onlooker that the country is going to polls is perhaps the skinny newspaper – the national daily Kuensel.

In the land of thunder dragon, littering is banned and litter includes party posters and pamphlets! The only graffiti allowed on the walls are religious symbols of flowers, dragons and phallus that are meant to keep evil spirits at bay and a political artwork might be considered an offence.

Adjusting his knee-length gho, the traditional Bhutanese dressing for men, Dhanapati, a travel guide, says: “Why waste money on all that. Money should be used for development, not self aggrandizement.”

The country’s closest ally and neighbour, India, spent close to rupees 50,000 crore on its last poll campaign. According to rough estimates, the two main parties spent over rupees 20 crore in merely ferrying their leaders across India during the campaign; another 3000 crore was spent in advertisement and the ruling party shelled out a crore for just a one minute election song!

World’s youngest democracy surely has something for the old hands. Taking its wings under the aegis of the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, democracy in Bhutan is five years old, but still looks similar to a “Shangri-La”, just as British author James Hilton described it.

Sewing her son’s torn schoolbag, Tanzie laughs when she is asked about voting and throws occasional blushes at her husband who signals to her to speak. “Whoever rules, he should keep us happy,” she says, without taking her eyes off the needle and then looks at her husband again, who gives her a thumbs up.

Tanzie and her husband Ugen live in Punakha, about 72 km away from capital Thimphu. The few paddy fields that they own take care of much of their needs. “A lot has changed after the first election. We have electricity, my son goes to a good school here and now even my mother has a cell phone,” says Ugen.

Ugen is aware only of the two main parties in the fray – the ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The other two parties in the reckoning are Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) and Druk Chirwang Tshogpa (DCT), both led by women.

Ugen swears by the present Lyonchhen (Prime Minister) Jigmi Thinley. “He is a man of words and I will vote for his party. Hope to see him this time round.”

Bhutan’s experiments with democracy have been largely successful, as of now. The standards of living have risen during the rule of DPT. Road connectivity and basic health indicators have shown positive trends.

In contrast, many pleaded with the King in 2008 to maintain the status quo, i.e. monarchy, since they were unsure about how democracy would function in a landlocked tiny nation that rests between two Asian behemoths – India and China.

“We are a small nation and I still don’t know why there is a need for a democracy or any other “cracy”. Anyway, I will vote out of sheer respect for my king,” says Dorji, a mask-maker from Thimphu.

In Bhutan, there are two rounds of elections and the first ended May 31. According to news reports, “about 55% of the roughly 380,000 registered voters queued up for the ballot”. The two parties with the biggest vote share – the ruling DPT and the PDP will face off on July 13.

The politics of Bhutan as of now is untouched by political mudslingling, blame game, corruption and inter party bickering. The candidates in fray are generous in their praise of opponents and the only thing that matters to them is country’s development, no matter who lifts the cudgels.

But then, this is just the beginning and Bhutan as a democracy has a lot to face and a lot more to prove. By proceeding in a peaceful manner, the Druk Yul had cleared the first hurdle.

(Meenakshi Iyer is the author of “False Sanctuaries: Stories from the troubled territories of South Asia”)

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