When His Majesty the Fourth King ascended on the throne His Majesty was not yet sixteen years of age but had already displayed qualities of leadership that inspired confidence and gained him unchallenged support.
The Fourth King carefully initiated re-examination and reform of the major state institutions, which became a programme of wholesale reform.
The King was very familiar with the temper of his people and though his reforms were sweeping in their effect, he proceeded in a manner and at a pace that the public could readily accept. Many other countries stumbled over their own comparable reform programmes but not Bhutan.
When he embarked upon his modernizing course, which was virtually from the beginning of his rule, there was no reformist template for the King to adopt and he had to work out his plans according to his own instinct and judgment. At a young age, when he might have been excused a certain amount of impetuosity, he was conspicuously sober and thoughtful in the exercise of authority. Not unduly solemn, however: there was plenty of good cheer and light heartedness at the royal court and a shared sense of high adventure. Around the court the demands of protocol were respected but kept within bounds and not permitted to become a barrier between the King and his subjects; the King’s afternoon game of basketball invariably drew a large crowd of ordinary people who came to watch their ruler at play, and the easy informality of these occasions was characteristic of his style of rule. He never permitted himself to be shut inside an ivory tower.
On the contrary, he was constantly on the move around his country, visiting the remotest parts of it, meeting people of every estate and learning for himself about the real needs of the public. The constant tours within the country permitted him to direct effectively the nation building activities of his administration including schools, roads, food, doctors, and shelter for his people. These were the basic tasks long before the UN and others got into the act of promoting human development targets as the measure of successful state activity.
No less important than social and economic development at home was management of the country’s external relations; dealing with the world provided opportunity for rapid advancement but could also unbalance the state if incautiously handled.
The King, like his ancestors before him, took a practical and down-to-earth approach, essentially seeking from abroad only those material inputs not obtainable at home, and keeping well clear of entanglements that could impose burdens and bring Bhutan no benefit. The traditional external link was with India, and it is a credit to both countries that they were able to develop and greatly expand their relations while maintaining a harmonious relationship between themselves. The leaders on both sides have been at pains to maintain this friendship, and in the early days Jawaharlal Nehru himself paid a visit to Bhutan, when going there was no simple matter and visitors had to resort to trekking and horseback riding. Prime Minister Nehru’s visit laid the foundation of the modern relationship of close mutual understanding and support which remains a model of good neighbourly ties.
Bhutan has looked to India for economic and technical partnership but has chosen its own goals and methods in its development strategy. In this, the imprimatur of the Fourth King is everywhere to be seen. He permitted the use of the country’s abundant water resources to generate electricity for Bhutan and to earn revenue by selling the surplus to India, but insisted on run-of-the-river projects with minimum environmental impact. Contrast the experience of developed countries like USA where indiscriminate dam building in earlier days has caused environmental damage requiring the present-day dismantling of several dams to revive badly damaged river valleys. Apart from the rivers, Bhutan’s great natural resource is its abundant forests, and these are zealously protected, so much so that Bhutan’s forestry practices are regarded as a model for others. Moreover, Bhutan has been bold enough to enunciate its own distinctive model of development with Gross National Happiness (GNH) as its governing ideal, in this departing significantly from the more frequent and more materialistically measured standards in use elsewhere. The GNH concept answers a growing urge in an increasingly stressed world and commands international appreciation and respect.
Perhaps the most striking and unprecedented of the Fourth King’s achievements is the manner in which he has promoted democracy in his country. He never craved the power and authority to which he was born, not out of a spirit of renunciation but because he understood clearly, as did his royal forbears, that for its security and advancement his people had to stand on their own feet and not depend on one individual or family. Bhutan’s strength rested ultimately on its people.
Popular institutions were needed to give substance to the democratic urge, and where they did not exist, they had to be created. Step by step, the King divested himself of his royal prerogative and passed on responsibility to institutions under public scrutiny. The untrammelled right to appoint state officials, something that other rulers elsewhere have jealously guarded, was devolved upon a Royal Civil Service Commission and transparent processes of recruitment and promotion were instituted.
A far-reaching step was the decision to codify laws, hitherto administered by traditional methods and concepts, so as to establish uniform civil and criminal codes and thereby transform the administration of justice. The keystone of reform was the framing of a Constitution which was done after wide consultation and debate, and was ultimately adopted with full public consent. This is now the ultimate source of state authority.
The wide-ranging reforms that transformed the country were not the result of pressure from outside.
Bhutan itself, led by the Fourth King, made all the essential choices and shaped its own destiny. The Fourth King was in full control as he wrote himself out of the picture and systematically handed over authority to the Parliament, to bring about popular rule through the ballot.
It is difficult to find a parallel to the Fourth King’s achievement. He left voluntarily at the peak of his power and influence, driven by his own convictions about what his country needed for a secure future. The benefits were immediately evident in the smooth transition that Bhutan has experienced to full-fledged democracy, most particularly the ability to change its government through the popular vote. Thanks to the wise leadership of the Fourth King, Bhutan has become a well-established constitutional monarchy with a bright future for its citizens.
Opinion By Salman Haidar
The author was a former ambassador to Bhutan and also served as the former Indian Foreign Secretary.
Extract from the book, The Bodhisattva King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan By Tshering Tashi &Thierry Mathou