Many professionals give up promising careers to join politics. But rarely does someone pay the government millions to do so. Bhutan’s new prime minister Lotay Tshering is one such rare individual.
As a urology surgeon in a government hospital, Tshering paid the authorities Nu 6.2 million (Rs 62 lakh), when in 2013 he decided to give up his job and join politics. The amount was compensation he had to pay the government as ‘training obligation’ when he left the civil service.
“If it was not for my passion and urge to serve the country at a different level, I would not have resigned by paying such a big amount,” he had said in an interview to Bhutan’s leading media outfit Kuensel.
It was his interest to work at the level where policies are made, he explained, that led him quit his job. “As a doctor, I can only address problems of individual patients. We can fix systemic problems only at the policy level,” Tshering added.
But, despite being an extremely popular doctor, his entry into politics did not meet with immediate success. His centre-left party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), was knocked out in the first round to the run-up of the 2013 election. In Bhutan’s parliamentary system, only two parties that get most votes qualify for the final round. The rest of the contenders are disqualified.
The last five years was a period of unremitting toil for Tshering. Both as a doctor and leader of the DNT he travelled to remotest corners of the country and reached out to large numbers of people. He also conducted surgeries and treated patients for 15-16 hours daily at the charitable hospital that he had set up. This obviously paid off, as in the knock-out stage of the parliamentary elections in September this year, his party emerged on top, with Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) in the number two slot. In last Thursday’s run-off, DNT got 30 of the 47 seats in the Bhutanese National Assembly.
At age 50, he is the third premier of the Himalayan Kingdom, which began its experiment with parliamentary democracy in 2008.
Tshering and his DNT campaigned on the slogan of ‘narrowing the gap’ in incomes—an attempt to address Bhutan’s growing rich-poor divide. Fused with this is the problem of rising unemployment among the youth, which has been a main support base of the party. But Tshering made a conscious decision of keeping out foreign policy and security-related issues from the campaign. However, as he settles down in office, he will have to address them, mainly how he plans to accommodate China in a country where India has traditionally enjoyed the ‘numero UNO” status.
The October 18 election to Bhutan’s National Assembly was also held in the backdrop of a 73-day long standoff in the summer of 2017 between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the Bhutanese plateau of Doklam. The two Asian giants have since come to an agreement to scale down tension.
The emergence of the new political dispensation in Bhutan, therefore, is being seen with as much interest in India as it is in China and other parts of South Asia, where China’s growing footprint poses both challenges and opportunities, especially for the region’s political leadership.
Tshering wants to diversify Bhutan’s economy from hydropower, which now accounts for 80 per cent of its external debts, and wants funds from the sector to help develop industries and generate employment. India is the biggest creditor and buyer of Bhutanese power.
Additionally, Bhutan, which had so far stayed away from establishing diplomatic relations with China, would now like to take that step. Almost certainly, India would be kept in the loop and its concerns will be safeguarded.
But Tshering must also be aware of the unique distinction the country is fast gaining—since the establishment of parliamentary democracy, Bhutanese voters have not returned any party to power. The skilful surgeon who is now in the prime minister’s chair will certainly try to buck that trend.
- A doctor by profession, Tshering paid a large compensation to be able to serve his country as a politician
- Now that the DNT has won polls and he is PM, Tshering aims to bridge the growing income divide, create more jobs
- Tshering has to balance ties with China and India if he decides to open diplomatic relations with the former