While doing the main story on MPs and vehicle quotas, one MP, on the condition of anonymity, told the writer that no public interest would be served and it would only cause a ‘sensation’ and sell more papers.
The statement in itself shows the large gap and disconnect between many MPs and the public, whom they represent.
The issue of MPs importing Prados without getting their quota is a serious issue at many levels and exposes the extent of a new ‘parallel system’ that they are creating for themselves.
While everybody from ordinary citizens to government agencies wait for Bills to become Acts after a due process that includes a Royal assent, the MPs have taken it on themselves to implement the Entitlement Bill even before it receives the Royal assent to become an Act.
The Royal assent or the assent of the head of state for Bills to become Acts is both a symbolic and practical safeguard in any democracy.
It is practical because most democratic Constitutions gives the head of state the prerogative to send back a bill to the Parliament to reconsider it in its entirety or relook at some points in it. This safeguard is there to ensure that extraordinarily bad laws are at least considered once again, discussed and voted on again. For example the Indian President has such powers while the American President can even veto any legislation sent from the US Congress.
The Bhutanese Constitution also has a safeguard which allows His Majesty to send back a bill for reconsideration.
Royal assent is also symbolically important as His Majesty the King as the head of the state represents both the nation and the Constitution and His Majesty’s signature is the very representation of the Constitution and the Bhutanese state endorsing the law.
The MPs, in anyhow going ahead with importing and ordering vehicles based on a Bill that is not yet law, is not in keeping with the Constitution.
Civil servants will only dare order for quota vehicles once they get their quotas released from the Ministry of Finance. However, the MPs have gone ahead anyway, importing and ordering vehicles without the quotas setting a wrong precedent.
Ordinary Bhutanese citizens and traders importing goods, even while following the rules, face challenges and problems from Customs. In the case of MPs the Department of Revenue and Customs (DRC) has made special exemptions for them based on undertakings from MPs in the absence of quotas allowing MPs to import tax free Prados.
For many ordinary Bhutanese a trip to RSTA is usually a very bureaucratic affair, full of checks and counter checks especially for registering vehicles. Drivers caught for not carrying RSTA documents while driving can be heavily penalized. However, despite not having all the neceassry documents including the mandatory quota letter, the RSTA has made a special and extraordinary exemption for MPs allowing them to register their new Prados.
All of the above will rankle any law abiding Bhutanese citizen, because the MPs in effect have created a short cut parallel system for themselves, and in doing so, have placed themselves above the norms and the laws of the land. This is also a small part of a larger and unhealthy ongoing process.
The first session of Bhutan’s first democratic Parliament in 2008 saw MPs fixing their thobthangs and perks. Even in terms of pay they first equated themselves to secretaries, then to constitutional post holders and are now above them all. Apart from the pay and perks, the sheer collective efforts of the MPs of both houses to get a higher standing in the official hierarchy, far above their voters, was disappointing at many levels.
Ironically the second Parliament also seems to be no different with MPs further increasing their pay and perks. One perk is that while ordinary citizens will have to be ready to pay 125 to 180 percent vehicle tax, MP’s have exempted themselves from all Customs and Sales Tax duties with the Entitlement Bill. They also gave themselves Nu 1 mn of tax payer’s money to better afford the luxury cars. Now with most citizens unable to afford luxury cars or SUVs the MPs are precisely going for these vehicles as both a status symbol and also for their huge resale value.
The National Council, while good at reviewing most laws sent from the NA are completely the opposite when it comes to perks competing with the NA to give even more.
MPs, by now, may have become largely cynical and would have ready counterarguments from ‘paying well to get good people’ to ‘upholding the dignity’ of their posts.
However, their climb upwards never seems to cease along with the increasing list of perks, especially when the country’s economy is not in the best shape.
More importantly, for a young democracy to be successful, its elected leaders must lead by not words but example. If they keep giving only the wrong examples then democracy itself will suffer and weaken.
The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.