Now the challenge in Bhutan is to convince the joint committee and then the joint sitting to defer the BBIN agreement
A release from the Foreign Ministry on 27th April said that Bhutan has decided to give its consent for the activation of the BBIN Agreement among the three member states (Bangladesh, India and Nepal) whose Parliaments have already endorsed it.
It said the agreement will come into affect for Bhutan only once it is ratified by the Parliament.
It has been learnt that recently after the government announced the premature ‘withdrawal’ of BBIN in the face of lack of support from the Opposition and NC, Bhutan’s Foreign Ministry and India’s Ministry of External Affairs worked to save the larger BBIN agreement.
This is because an explicit no from Bhutan would have killed the larger BBIN agreement, one of whose clauses require its ratification by all four countries.
A result like this would be seen as a diplomatically setback, and especially so, for India whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoted it as an alternative to the failed SAARC Motor Vehicles agreement, where Pakistan had played spoilsport.
A senior Bhutanese official said that the Indian Ambassador in the face of the latest developments informed New Delhi that BBIN lacked enough support in the Parliament to pass through the joint sitting.
Bhutanese channels also informed New Delhi that while BBIN lacked domestic support it was willing to let the other three countries go ahead, and not let any refusal by Bhutan be the cause for the death of the entire agreement.
One idea discussed in New Delhi was to re-amend the BBIN but this idea was seen as not being feasible as Bangladesh, India and Nepal had already passed the agreement and so any changes would have to go through these Parliaments again. It was felt that there especially could be problems in Nepal whose Parliament had passed the BBIN with some difficulty.
Then the legal section of India’s Ministry of External Affairs came up with a solution where its lawyers said that the larger BBIN agreement could still be saved. This is if Bhutan would agree to an ‘exchange of letters’ allowing the other three countries to go ahead while it carries out its own processes.
A letter to this affect was sent to Bhutan and the Foreign Ministry wrote back to India agreeing to the idea, given the circumstances.
Based on the discussions and agreement on both sides India and Bhutan came up with a draft which said that Bhutan agreed to let the other countries go ahead as its own process was taking time. It said that the agreement would apply for Bhutan only once its Parliament ratified it. The Bhutan government agreed and signed on this.
The MoF release stating Bhutan’s commitment to BBIN says, “The Royal Government views BBIN as a platform, encompassing key areas such as energy, trade, information, communication and technology. Strengthening regional cooperation is especially significant for a landlocked country like Bhutan and, therefore, the Royal Government remains fully committed to the BBIN process including BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement.”
The joint committee and joint sitting challenge
After helping to save the larger regional BBIN agreement for the other three countries, the immediate challenge for the government and the ruling party is to defer the bill in the joint sitting rather than vote on it and get it defeated. The government feels that voting down and defeating the BBIN would not only send the wrong signal on the agreement, but also unnecessarily embarrass India which is the main force behind BBIN.
After an initial ‘withdrawal’ of the bill by the government the NC objected to it saying it is not correct Parliamentary procedure and moreover a Royal Kasho had already been granted for a joint sitting. The NA Speaker who was initially inclined to accept the withdrawal also disallowed the withdrawal of the bill.
The first stage is the 12 member joint committee consisting of four ruling party MPs and three opposition MPs representing the seven National Assembly members and five members from the NC.
The joint committee was set up to try and resolve disputes on the BBIN Bill between the two houses however with an entrenched opposition in the lower house and a firm NC the focus would be to get to the joint committee to propose a deferral for the Bill.
However, according to a joint committee member this is easier said then done with the ruling party having only 4 votes out of 12 in the committee where the committee’s final report depends on a seven vote simple majority.
There are already some ruling party MPs questioning the Speaker’s decision to allot three of the seven seats to the Opposition when there is no rule that says it must be so.
Amazingly while the BBIN joint sitting is scheduled for 4th May the joint committee is unable to meet as two ruling party MPs from Bumthang and Chukha in the committee have gone for a trip to Colombo authorized by the Speaker and will return only by 30th April. The committees first two recent meetings could not achieve much as time was spent trying to convince each other to be the chairman while the second meeting was also unsuccessful due to some discussion on the technicality of the NC’s vote against the BBIN.
This gives the joint committee precious little time to come together and hammer out a solution, including examining the government’s proposal to defer the bill rather than vote on it.