The Bhutanese Editor Tenzing Lamsang had an open question and answer session with the new BKP President Dasho Neten Zangmo on her entry into politics and the future plans ahead for her and her party.
Editor: You successfully served as the ACC Chairperson and after retirement you famously left Thimphu and went down to head the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative. What, therefore, motivated you to join politics? (Dasho here asked the writer to also incorporate some of her opening remarks in the answer.)
Dasho: I joined politics with no conditions. I joined BKP because of the values and principles we shared. As most know, my principles are most important to me in my life.
The most important thing for me is if I can do something and if we as a country can collectively do something. This is something I would like to see. I thank Sonam Tobgay from the bottom of my heart for taking BKP this far and even after the Gasa candidate defected in 2013. I thank him for his endurance and voluntarily giving up the post as anybody else would have held on to the position. The shifting Presidency does not mean less responsibility as he has so much experience and value.
It is most important for the two of us to have trust and that has to be so strong that nobody can shake it and this trust has to shift to the party. We cannot talk of trust outside without making BKP a trustworthy organization with no internal politicking. I am getting emotional. The last few days have been like a dream.
We have to engage other stakeholders like the media and work together with confidence and conviction and yet maintain our independence. Politicians are all Bhutanese and we must be united to make Bhutan a strong nation.
We have to be totally behind Our Majesties who are really concerned about the country. It is such a small country and there are so many challenges and opportunities too. What gives me a lot of energy is that thinking about what we can collectively do.
We must have dialogue and create the space to discuss issues without fear, be it within the party or outside. At the end of the day we are Bhutanese first. If we are concerned for the nation’s future then nothing will stop us from making changes.
If you have a clean motive and agenda then nothing can stop you and if anybody doubts the motivation then we should all discuss and all of us have to be transparent.
In the last few days people said you are not politically savvy and so you may have to keep somebody as an adviser. If that is the case I would not have joined politics at all. If I have to change to be in the main-stream to play politics like anybody else why should I join? I have joined to give a different face and dimension to politics.
We will try sincerely and if it does not work then perhaps it is not to be so and it could mean Bhutan is distant to the way it is going. Most importantly, Bhutan is so small and so what is there we cannot do. If we can channel our energy in for a positive outcome nothing can stop us.
I look to work together with absolute open mindedness. I would like to have frank discussions and it does not matter that you can call me black. I will explain why I am black.
Building roads and bridges is easy but changing people’s mindset is tough. People can say I am foolish and I will not last long but I don’t care. Even if I last one month it is fine but we must do our best.
Let us be open, frank and fearless and trust each other. Let us have more open sessions. The solutions may not be with us but with the bureaucracy, media and farmers. For example farmers in Menchuri must fulfill the goal of a GNH village. There are so many things we can do. I feel so passionate and energized.
Editor: Until recently you worked in the villages. So what about your rural grassroots experience motivated you to join politics?
Dasho: Working at the grassroots level already reconfirmed what I knew while working in the system. These are about working in silos and inertia in service delivery which you can see at the grassroots, where service is being delivered. These are some things we have discussed before and are nothing new by the way. In the field and the grassroots it is worse.
The grassroots people are still fearful. With democracy you must feel a palpable sense of confidence in the people but the people in the grassroots are still fearful. It has been nine years since we are a democracy and I would like to feel that culture of democracy which is missing in the grassroots. So it is difficult to get the people’s voice even for simple things like getting the alignment of roads. You can see many things from Lauri to Menchari in Dewathang. The other thing is that we need to be able to really shake people so that they can say what they want collectively.
Editor: According to you what do you see as deficiencies in the current overall political system?
Dasho: We talk a lot of about GNH and the four pillars like culture and tradition but we are not really valuing culture and tradition. Culture and tradition is not just Tsechus, Gho and Kira but it is also our food system. How much value are we attaching to that which we can already see at the grassroots level?
We seem to ‘wow wow’ what we get from outside. I am not trying to be nationalistic when I talk about food and agricultural systems but for example the indigenous seeds are gradually deteriorating. I am not saying it is a huge problem right now but we are seeing the trends. What value are we attaching to local practices and wisdom hold? So much is driven by income and while we need income it cannot be the only factor.
Nutrition, food self sufficiency and resilience is important. Climate resilience seems to be served by only things from outside but we must see what we have inside and not lost and what we can still capitalize on.
I am not an expert but besides ACC I have now been exposed to agriculture and environment and what is happening and what can be done. Waste is not about littering and cleaning but it is about how people can change their life styles about what they eat, wear and use and not about cleaning or creating landfills.
In terms of integrating waste management in policies and institutions it is there but what is happening at the grassroots level. Even for the custodians of the law do they even understand? We have to discuss and have dialogue on them. I have many examples that can be hopefully enriched and argued. I am not an expert though.
Editor: A political party needs an organization, infrastructure and base down to the Gewogs and villages. While the previous president built a skeletal framework what are your organizational plans for BKP to compete with the more established parties both inside and outside the Parliament?
Dasho: We will see. I am only two days old and an infant and I know I have to become an adult yesterday. We will see what the existing infrastructure is and also be very creative.
Generally parties have party offices in the Dzongkhags and supporters down to the Gewog level with even Gups in the guise of Tshogpas, which is a difficult thing we need to fight against.
We have to tell the Tshogpas about our values like trust and credibility and it must go down to the grassroots.
There cannot be tshogpas at the grassroots terrorizing people and putting fear in them. This is what is happening and this is what I have also felt. It might be perceptions and in some cases it might be reality. We need to correct that.
Otherwise we are such a small society and we are fragmenting ourselves. It is very unfortunate that democracy has fragmented us and so are we going to allow democracy to fragment us further. I don’t think so, and that is why BKP will have to look into the existing infrastructure and see how creatively our delivery can be different.
Perhaps we need to have more responsible people who will not create divisions in the Gewog level or in the family. This has to change and all parties have to work towards that and I think BKP is one such party.
If a party is not bent on winning then we can do so many things that are not popular and things which may also irritate and antagonize the Tshogpa. I don’t care. What I care is for the larger good and that is the attitude we must bear.
I am talking a lot and let’s see whether I will be able to deliver or not and if I am not able to deliver I will leave. That means such a culture is not workable in Bhutan. That means it is a very serious concern for everybody that we must think about, and at this point and time a group of people in the form of BKP is there not only to look for 5 years.
This is again absolutely out of the rut. Somebody was talking at a conference that politicians cannot think beyond five years, and I thought to myself who has put a pistol on your head and said that you can only think for five years. You have the choice to think beyond five years.
So when we have group of people with the conviction that winning is not our priority and not our agenda but changing the face of our politics, some people say that there is hope and politics can be clean and good people can join, politicians are not corrupt after all and they are as much Bhutanese as us.
Because right now what is there in our system is that everybody points fingers including the media. So what you preach and expect from others you must also practice whether it is the youth, bureaucrats, media or the citizens at large.
That is the comfort we have with the BKP which is not bent on winning since those bent on winning stoop to all levels and when we are not bent on serving five years then we will come out with creative ideas and not so popular decisions. At some point hopefully wisdom will dawn on the people that it was a great decision and we did not like it then but it was good for the country and us.
When you collectively decide for the larger good then individual good is taken care of. This is the philosophy of BKP and that will be the philosophy of BKP. Now don’t think Neten Zangmo will try to influence as I am one person who always will always try to depersonalize from the institution as institutions are not about personalities. Some kind of association will always be there but at the end of the day institutions must stand on their own and individuals should not matter. Individuals come and go. I worked in ACC and I have gone but it is still going strong.
Editor: Given your former tenure as a successful ACC Chief half the country fears you while the mainly younger half respect you and have high expectations. You are also still largely seen as the crusading anti- corruption persona. So what is your take on this?
Dasho: This is a very valid question and I discussed this in the car while coming here. There is high expectation from the youth and some other quarters where they want to see change and see the system being overhauled and laundered and absolutely clean starting tomorrow.
Having high expectations and not doing anything yourself is also wrong. So this means that you have to engage. I am open to having discussions with a larger audience. Then what is also unfair is that you will want results yesterday and when you don’t see results yesterday then you will be disappointed and frustrated, and this is the last thing that we want to happen.
The other thing is the fear. I have worked at the grassroots for the last one and a half year. Talk to my colleagues and whether my drive was towards anti corruption and governance. It was not, otherwise with that anti corruption passion I would be talking to people about you must do this about your Gup and that about your budget etc. But we have to look at the context again. There are skillful means of dealing with things. You might deal with governance but maybe through agriculture, waste and people engagement and people taking responsibility.
I would like to urge people to understand me better and not just look at me as a somebody who is going to shoot and plus not to have high expectation without people doing anything otherwise there will be disappointment. It has to realistic and it has to be participatory. All of us have to participate to achieve that expectation. Then what is that expectation by the way. Is it about jobs falling from the sky?
Editor: A major concern in Bhutanese politics is the rise of regionalism which could be seen in 2013 with parties accusing each other of representing one region and etc. It can also be seen in the social media with ugly language being used. Regionalism seems to be like the dry powder of Bhutanese politics ready to be used and very dangerous. What is your view on this and how would your party counter it?
Dasho: This is a very serious problem and inherently you can feel it. I remember it is not only about these days. Long ago when I was in the Planning Ministry or now GNHC we had a graduate’s orientation where we were discussing urbanization and rural-urban migration and one question was asked. Then I encouraged discussions like this dialogue and you could see the division then only and it has gotten deeper and it is getting deeper.
I don’t have solutions right now, and the only thing is that I and others in my party must not speak as Kurteops, Gaseps etc. This is an issue that we must always bring to the fore. This must be on our agenda.
This is a very, very serious problem and this can really divide the country and is only deepening something that was there long, long ago, by the way, and with democracy and politics it is now surfacing and this is something that will be on our agenda.
We must have a dialogue on this sort of issue and it should not be left to parties and politicians as sometimes politicians might create more harm. All of us must discuss whether here or on the social media and even the media must take responsibility. Everybody must take responsibility about this serious problem and we have to discuss, of course seeing the context.
We must discuss as unless you discuss it will always be inside and it will only manifest in what we do and what we say. Definitely as far as BKP is concerned this is something that will be high on our agenda and we will be speaking as Bhutanese and not from any region. As Bhutanese we must be concerned about these sorts of divisive forces. Politicians should not abuse it and create further divisions. It is really dangerous and so inflammable. All of us must make effort even among ourselves. Thank you for raising the issue.
It will be sad if people choose BKP because the president is from the East. We would like to do well on our own merit and not because we come from the east or the west. We must always raise and discuss these important issues and come up with what are the good ways.
One good way is discussing and talking about it and not feeling shy about some difficult issues. I think we should not be ashamed or fearful and that is how we can also enhance understanding.
Correction: The print version of this article in the second last paragraph said, “It will be said if people choose BKP because the president is from the East.” The actual statement was, “It will be sad if people choose BKP because the president is from the East.” The typo error, which was noticed by the Editor in the print version, is regretted.