In an extraordinary move the government has decided to withdraw its BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) motor vehicles agreement from the Parliament.
The government’s decision was communicated to a plenary session of the National Assembly where it received support from the Opposition members as well.
It was felt that it would be better for the government to withdraw the Bill for now than have it voted down by the Parliament.
The Prime Minister Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay said, “Yes, we have withdrawn BBIN for now as it would be better to have something where there is a harmonious position among the people. Currently, the environment is not right for it with entrenched positions.”
Numbers against government
The government undertook this move after an increasing realization that the numbers are stacked against the agreement in case of a joint sitting in the Parliament. A clear majority of the apolitical National Council or Upper House and the Opposition party in the National Assembly have already voted against BBIN.
A two thirds majority is required in a joint sitting of Parliament to pass a disputed bill like the BBIN. As a result the combined voting records of both the houses was not reassuring at all as the government was way below the two thirds mark.
However, the final push came when the National Council declined to meet the Prime Minister who recently asked for time from the Upper House to meet, discuss and explain the issue to the NC.
The NC took a position that the NC was already done with BBIN and so it would be more appropriate for the PM to approach the Joint Committee of the two houses who would then appraise the Parliament. However, even the Joint Committee has no mechanism by which the PM can come to talk to them unless he is ‘summoned’ by the joint committee.
In addition to that, in the two meetings so far, the indication from the 12 member joint committee of both houses was not very reassuring. Of the 12 member committee while the four members from the ruling party supported BBIN the three opposition members made it clear that they would stick to their party’s stand in opposing BBIN.
The remaining five members were the legislative committee members of NC who in the first place had come up with the 15 points against BBIN. It did not help that some of the NC members on the committee were already not impressed by the government’s rebuttal and explanations on the NC’s 15 points against BBIN. An early testing of the waters thus indicated a real possibility of the joint committee instead making recommendations against BBIN to the joint sitting of the Parliament by a sheer majority in the joint committee.
This coupled with the NC’s refusal to directly meet the PM lead to the conclusion that the NC is a lost cause for the government as far as BBIN as concerned.
The withdrawal is also seen as a failure of the government to lobby effectively with skeptical NC and also other NA members.
BBIN was first tabled in the winter session in the National Assembly in 2015 but was deferred to the summer session in 2016 when it was passed by 28 votes with 10 ‘no’ votes and three abstentions out of the 41 members present.
In the meantime some transporters filed a petition with the National Council to not pass the agreement. The National Council’s Legislative Committee did its own due process and consultations on the agreement coming up with 15 points against it touching on lack of consultations, impact on sovereignty, inconsistency with immigration laws, carrying capacity issues, environmental and cultural impact, current unresolved issues of regional tourism, problems with reciprocity, lost business opportunities etc.
This lead to the NC rejecting BBIN in November 2016 with 13 no votes, two yes votes and five abstentions out of the 20 present members.
The NC’s decision in turn was not solely influenced by BBIN but also the failure of the government to address the NC’s December 2015 resolution to regulate and control the rapidly growing numbers of regional tourists coming into Bhutan.
The NC’s 2015 regional tourism resolution in turn was based on growing concern among many Bhutanese citizens, transporters, tour operators and others of large numbers of regional tourists driving into Bhutan, and its resultant and visible impact from more traffic to pollution at even sacred sites.
This was the main reason why NC’s decision to reject BBIN in its current form received widespread support from many ordinary Bhutanese people already alarmed with the unchecked numbers of regional tourists pouring into Bhutan.
After the NC’s rejection of BBIN the government at the time said that there had been a ‘big misunderstanding’ with the Bill and that it would leave ‘no stone unturned’ to convince the MPs.
However, as time passed by the government failed to carry out its lobbying, be it formal or informal, leaving matters for the last minute. This reporter even talked to a NC legislative committee member in March 2017 who was surprised that the government is yet to approach them to convince them on BBIN.
With the Parliament session hardly a week away positions on all sides solidified.
The first joint committee meeting saw surprised members from both houses who were yet to get the government or the National Assembly’s rebuttal or explanations to the NC’s 15 points, which was the main sticking issue.
The Foreign Ministry hurriedly issued a brief point by point rebuttal of the 15 points including some clarifications which was only presented a few days ago in the second meeting of the joint committee.
A NC legislative committee member who is also a member of the joint committee told the paper that the government’s rebuttal and explanations were not substantial enough.
While the government may have agreed to withdraw BBIN along with assent from the Opposition, it remains to be seen what the NC’s formal position on this would be. The government could site that the Royal Kasho for the joint sitting is yet to come and so it could be withdrawn at the joint committee level. On the other hand the government had to defer its European Investment Bank agreement in 2016 through a joint sitting of the Parliament.
This is an issue as the rules of procedure of both houses do not go into the procedures of withdrawing a bill once both houses have voted on it. The eventual answer would boil down to an interpretation of the rules and a common understanding between the two houses. The other question to answer also would be if the bill will be treated as a dead bill once it is withdrawn. A dead bill is a bill that can be reintroduced only after one year.
The Indian government has also been lobbying with Bhutan’s government to pass the BBIN agreement as it is India’s sub-regional project to circumvent Pakistan’s rejection of the original SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement. It is also seen as one of Prime Minister’s Modi’s sub-regional diplomatic initiatives.
The former Indian Ambassador, Gautam Bambawale in an unprecedented address in 2015 had called on the Parliament to pass the BBIN.
When the National Council rejected the bill in 2016 the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson had said that BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement was signed in Thimphu in 2015 by the representatives of the four governments. The spokesperson said that that the National Assembly of Bhutan had endorsed the BBIN in 2016, and forwarded it to the National Council of Bhutan for consideration. The spokesperson said, “We hope that the Royal Government of Bhutan will be able to complete necessary internal procedures for operationalisation of the Agreement at an early date.”
The government was under pressure to pass the agreement especially as Bhutan’s Minister for Information and Communication already signed the BBIN agreement along with the Transport ministers of India, Bangladesh and Nepal in 2015 in Thimphu.
According to a senior official the withdrawal of the Bill gives much more options than just voting on it and failing to secure the votes. The withdrawal would give the government the option of reintroducing it later after doing more consultations and addressing the concerns of various stakeholders and especially the NC.
It would also give the government the option of kicking the agreement down the road for the next government to handle with a reconstituted National Assembly and National Council.
In the worst case scenario for the government, if there is absolutely no support for it at all then the agreement could be allowed to die a natural death instead of having the Parliament vote against it, which, it is felt, may embarrass its other BBIN partners and chiefly India.
In the medium term the upcoming 2018 elections are also an important factor for the government to consider as any backlash from having BBIN right now, especially in the face of public opinion, could lead to domestic political implications as well.
The Prime Minister said that he did not agree with the word ‘lobbying.’
“Even if we had the numbers we would not want to pass the bill through as it would not be good for Bhutan’s democracy,” he said.
Lyonchhen said that the government would rather discuss and get support than just pursue votes in the Parliament.
Lyonchhen said that Bhutan has signed the agreement but withouth the Parliament’s approval it would not become law in Bhutan.
He said that he looked forward to getting an agreement on BBIN in the future.
Update on 25th April 2017: The National Council Deputy Chairperson, Tshering Dorji, said since the bill is a disputed bill the government cannot withdraw at any time and that they have to go through the legislative procedures. He said this is especially after seeking a Royal Kasho for the Joint Session. He said that the joint committee members were surprised with the sudden withdrawal without prior information.
It has also been learnt that the Royal Kasho for a joint sitting has recently been issued which will mean that there will be a joint sitting to discuss the government’s proposal to ‘withdraw’ the BBIN agreement.