The new debate on the Rising East program of the government is more complicated than what it appears to be.
All socio-economic data and indicators have always shown that Eastern Bhutan is broadly the poorest and least developed region of Bhutan, sharing similar features and problems.
The poverty and problems of the region is mainly due to the result of unfriendly geography that limits the scope of both agriculture and trade, but there are also other socio-economic factors.
All of these are acknowledged facts and as a result there have been various programs and efforts over the years to bring development to the east. One simple example would be the decision to have Bhutan’s first college in Sherubtse when it could easily have been in Thimphu or Paro.
At the same time, the region also has a large population and this was what perked the interest of aspiring political groups and politicians before the 2008 polls.
What distinguished the area both regionally and culturally was the Tshangla dialect, and this was what was effectively used in the 2008 election campaign by some politicians to better connect with the voters.
So while Dzongkha was the authorized language for common forum debates, politicians, while campaigning, understood the value of the regional appeal and popularity of Tshangla.
Other regions like the South and Central Bhutan also saw local dialects being used to great effect. At one level it was about connecting with mainly illiterate voters but at another level there was a deeper regional appeal.
A key to success in the east in 2008 would be for any political leader or party that not only understood the east but also went the extra step to represent them and their local aspirations. There was also a longstanding undercurrent of feeling in the east about being ignored by far away Thimphu. Whether, this feeling was justified or not is another issue, but it was there and ready to be used by any political group.
After the former government came to power a large chunk of the 10th plan’s activities focused on the east from farm roads to rural electrification and other socio-economic infrastructure.
In the 2013 polls the conventional political wisdom was that no party could come into power without either winning it big in the east or at the least getting some seats there. This is because the maximum number of Parliamentary seats is from there. For all the parties trying to unseat DPT, the seats in the east were considered to be its stronghold. In fact the current 15 DPT MPs are mainly from the east.
Every political party came up with various programs and strategies for eastern Bhutan. PDP being the principal opposition party decided to do one better and came up with a Rising East program focusing on the six eastern Dzongkhags. This move was also to make up for its relative weakness in the east.
The political importance of eastern Bhutan came up even more in the turning point of the 2013 polls when the President, Vice President and three candidates from the DNT joined PDP. The wisdom here was that these members would strengthen PDP’s prospects in the east- which it did, during the 2013 general elections.
It is significant to note that in the current government some of most important ministries like the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests and Ministry of Education are held by ministers from the east. This seems to be a deliberate strategy to provide regional balance and consolidate the gains of the 2013 polls.
After coming to power the current government was in a dilemma of sorts as it did not want to be seen being focused mainly on the east while at the same time it also wanted to meet its campaign promises. This would explain the early lack of pronouncements on the Rising East program.
However, the Opposition sensing an opportunity at first started questioning the government on why things were not happening under the Rising East campaign promise. However, once the government started getting more vocal about Rising East and actually started putting things in place the Opposition as off two weeks ago skillfully changed tact and brought out regional and Constitutional issues.
The DNT, which will be eyeing both the ruling and opposition seats in 2018, did not want to be left behind and so to maintain its political street credibility delivered its own dose to the government.
The government is right now in a curious position of potentially being damned either way. If it does go ahead with Rising East and meets all the promises then other political groups will say what about other regions and parts of Bhutan. If the government backtracks then there will be a backlash from the East which is looking forward to its colleges and other facilities.
Whatever the outcome, the Rising East program is pregnant with both political opportunities and pitfalls and it is now up to the wisdom of the government to handle the issue.
However, the broader point is that Bhutan’s national politics already has a lot of regional politics in it.
Another example would be the then aspiring politicians in southern Bhutan who first started getting organized a couple of years prior to the 2008 polls around the main southern Bhutan issue of census.
Any government coming into power in Thimphu will always have to do its electoral math and be aware of different regional aspirations.
The issue here is not about debating the morality of regional politics but recognizing the ground reality that while our national politics is driven by national issues like economy, corruption, etc, regional politics is also an inherent part of Bhutanese politics, no matter what flowery words any of our politicians use.
Bhutanese democracy is still at an early stage but how it eventually evolves and matures over time is up to the people.
At the end of the day it is important for everyone to remember that Bhutan survives and thrives today only due to our national unity. While we can have different aspirations and goals, it is very important to remember that we have them only because we are under the shade and protection of Druk Yul.
“If everyone helps to hold up the sky, then one person does not become tired.”
Askhari Johnson Hodari