A much-respected PM of India, I. K. Gujral compared His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck to a man who has attributes of Plato’s philosopher King. The long and cherished reign of the His Majesty The Fourth King, infused with charismatic leadership, set the bar very high for any leader. The political and demographic environment to create any mark quickly was also absent after he abdicated. Looking back, it is remarkable how even the apparent lack of typical environment was changed by His Majesty The King into a welcome prospect.
When His Majesty the King came to the throne, he faced a setting very different from any earlier ruler: King or Desi. Firstly, a full-blooded parliamentary democracy was instituted by 2008, changing the way national decisions were made and decision makers were elected. Becoming a Constitutional Monarch and forging a new role were uncharted paths in this milieu. Regardless of the shift in decision-making to the parliamentary government, initially people believed tenaciously that His Majesty would continue to oversee direct running of the government, or at least give intimate guidance in the light of his wisdom and ‘soft power’. It dawned only slowly on people that the institutional system we were used to navigating had changed. It did largely because His Majesty was at the forefront of the passionate message hailing that the democracy has been instituted for good and the system was constitutionalized. His Majesty threw all the weight of the Throne to make a success of democracy, the very thing that changed the rules for monarchy.
Secondly, the demography had changed adversely: half the population was below the age of 22.3 years in 2006. This young and literate demography gave rise to several pressing new questions that will remain relevant for at least two decades. The issues associated with a young demography about the quality of education and jobs became preoccupying themes for His Majesty. He empathised deeply with youth’s prospects and hopes. His school visits and graduation speeches became venues for a dialogue with the youth. Unlike any period before, the educational institutions were pouring out ill-skilled youth who now looked for jobs while farm hand-deficit rural families could not attract them back, due to lack of appropriate technical change in this sector reinforced by disrupting expansion of urbanization fuelled by private sector and banks. Complicated as it may be to resolve quickly the chain of challenges starting from education to agriculture to jobs, the youth projected their hope on His Majesty and thus His Majesty remained the sole object of the youth’s hope and optimism right from the beginning. At the same time, His Majesty has told time and again the youth that they embody the hope and future of the country. Their concerns are his, and that sensitivity to any section of population has been a major reason for the affection of the people for His Majesty. We need only remember the first person – His Majesty – who rushed to the place of any major accident or disaster in the country.
One might add a third condition that emerged newly when His Majesty came to the throne in December 2006. Mobile had reached 11% of the households and TV was being watched by 26% of the households, according to census of 2005. Digital communication spread quickly in the years that followed. Perceptions of the people, especially youth, were not internally bound; they became susceptible to information on the Internet. Cultural and perceptual change among the youth was significant because of social media and Internet.
Against this relatively new environment which had the potential to be disruptive, in retrospect it is surprising how much the country has navigated in an orderly way forward in the last ten years of His Majesty’s reign, and how many pioneering initiatives have unfolded, attributed to his direct leadership. Until they manifested physically, very little of these initiatives that came from HM’s could be foreseen by anyone, because they arose from his own imaginations and visions.
But, first, what ordinary people remember are His Majesty’s rural itineraries. His regular visits to far-flung hamlets whose inhabitants could not easily travel to the capital; his reflective and gratitude-filled speeches, conveyed in resonantly deep-toned, articulate dzongkha, honouring all unacknowledged citizens; and unfailing courtesies to ordinary people turning up on the trails he marched came to define within a few years of his Reign his devotion to the people.
He established not just a symbolic connection with the people. He was viewed not just through a photo or image found in sacral part of every house. His Majesty’s images became a tangible token of a direct encounter with their King who was also regarded as semi-divine by most of the faithful. A King is an exalted being in the sacral Buddhist cosmology, possessing positive merits from his past deeds and born to be deeply engaged on resolving multidimensional forms of suffering, and having a deep capacity to orient a society toward peace, harmony, security and justice – a liberating society.
Abroad, whether in Thailand, Japan or Singapore, His Majesty’s visits produced overwhelming visibility and awareness of the country and bonds with other nations. The interest and respect the audiences abroad showed to His Majesty seemed that he could touch some chord in the popular minds in faraway lands. It was an unexpected delight for a visiting citizen to hear from gregarious Thai taxi drivers: ‘King Jigme, very good, very handsome!’ with thumbs-up sign. It was equally touching to hear from the Japanese usually economical with words: ‘how gracious and composed the royal couple of Bhutan is.’ His Majesty enjoys similar confidence and respect in Delhi, the epicentre of South Asia. His Majesty has invested much time in deepening Indo-Bhutan friendship, and it began with his time, as Crown Prince, at the National Defence College, India’s highest international strategic institute for military and security affairs.None of these admirations can be acquired, and then retained, easily from foreigners, as he has.
Space does not allow me to point out, let alone discuss, His Majesty’s numerous pioneering initiatives. Humanitarian and anti-poverty programs such as land grants, housing, scholarships, old age support program, retiree tshogpas, disaster relief, accident relief, crop damage relief have provided a shield against random losses, helplessness and economic marginality and deprivations.
Intellectual projects like RIGGS and the Royal Academy have begun to awaken participants morally and cerebrally. His Majesty’s speeches to the parliament, to the nation on the National Days, and to many other fora are equally vehicles of moral, intellectual and practical messages.
Institutional innovation like DHI managing the public enterprises could breathe new life into the economy. Desuung, a loose network of trained disaster and rescue teams, have already demonstrated their valuable service to the country. They saved property and lives, and have tamed raging forest fire and floods. Cultural and religious projects like the Wangdephodrang Dzong to the Samtse Hindu Mandir; and greening and gardening programs for the cities of Paro and Thimphu all speak to His Majesty’s splendid patronage of aesthetics and arts. It is unnecessary to prolong my account in a disparate way here as much of these initiatives are common knowledge. I should however point out that the series of activities in different fields has acted as tipping points and trial blazers in the larger mass.
The Bhutanese people have enjoyed the blessing of the leadership of wise, the monarchy. Yet the His Majesty The Fourthth King groomed people towards the view that leadership is the consequence of the whole community, the country. To paraphrase him, relying on an individual leader can be risky and that should be compensated by a more resilient system. Citizens have been trained since the 1980s how to accept distributive leadership coming through formal process of election in the gewogs, dzongkhags, thromde, parliament, and selection in the bureaucracy. There has been huge political empowerment of the citizens, like the prolific empowerments in religious practices. But like spiritual empowerment, followers may practice far less after empowerment. Both His Majesty The Fourth King and the His Majesty The King have reminded us in a more delicate way than I can phrase here that if people choose the wrong leader at whatever level of electorate, due to poor judgement, the choice in their hands is wasted. Plato’s old question about who should rule, in our context, at the level of gewog, dzongkhag, thromde, bureaucracies, and centre is going to be recurrent. We have to be committed to choosing well and being constructively engaged. And where ideas and initiatives are truly first rate, no matter which party, organization, or person begets it, it is not leadership alone that will bring them to fruition. We have to be committed to profound followership.
The body of ideals we espouse such as GNH, cultural richness, un-fragmented and pristine habitat for wildlife, 100% organic farming and organic food supply, genuine self-reliance, holistic education, aesthetic architecture and immaculately clean living environment, sustainable green-economic prosperity, value-oriented and fulfilling life and enlightened citizenship require continued, coherent and rigorous transformational thinking and transformational leadership. And though it may be a clichéd statement, it is worth repeating that we always require profound leadership and citizenship, with clarity of long-range thinking, to safeguard the sovereignty and security of our Motherland. It is all too human to fall for incomes and expediencies, but we have to draw a line between sheer pragmatism on one hand and security and sovereignty on the other. At the end, losing any incomes or projects that go against them is always a gain, for the country and for future generations.
On the 10th anniversary of HM’s accession, it is a pleasure to recall His Majesty’s sterling commitments and endeavours towards the pledges he made in his coronation speech, encompassing the body of ideals described above. Yet the fulfilment of these ideals as much as possible in the last 10 years due to His Majesty’s leadership leads to greater yearning and hope in the years ahead, for even higher ideals and equally greater fulfilment. That fulfilment depends also on ourselves being good followers of national building to which His Majesty has dedicated his life.
By Dasho Karma Ura
The writer is President of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research