State of Bliss

By Omair Ahmad

The politics of happiness in Bhutan, where it is policy as well as propaganda.

A boy at a Bhutan monastery.
A boy at a Bhutan monastery.

For most people, Bhutan’s name is inextricably tied up with the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The phrase was first used by the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1979, when he was asked by Indian journalists about Bhutan’s nascent economy, and its low Gross National Product. The King’s quip, that GNH was possibly more important, was a play on words. It caught the imagination of those journalists and many others, and since then a great deal of commentary has focussed on the words while ignoring who said them.

Most royalty that we know of are featured in glitzy magazines, and have good cutlery, bad dental hygiene and about as much power as a fused light bulb. The little influence they have is because of social prestige or the leveraging of the democratic system. It is different in Bhutan. A senior Indian diplomat said to me, “It was only when I arrived in Thimphu that I understood the characters in Shakespeare, such as Lear or Macbeth. The King was a sovereign, whose word was law.” In such a polity, the loyalty of the local population is the key to power, and this loyalty can be won by serving the people and working towards their happiness. For a king to want the general happiness of his people is not a philosophical point. It is realpolitik.

The Fourth King of Bhutan had made many statements within his own country before 1979 that spoke about addressing the happiness of the people. More importantly, he used government revenues from aid and generous Indian assistance, to build infrastructure, provide free education and medical services, and generally work towards the improvement of basic social, economic and health indicators of the populace. As a consequence, Bhutan has maintained one of the highest growth rates in the world for years. Its population is much better educated, lives longer lives, and has the opportunity to do a lot more than their parents.

During this time, the kingdom saw more than one assassination plot, a large-scale set of protests in 1989-90 in its southern, largely Nepali-origin population, and a short battle in 2003, when the Fourth King led his army into battle to turf out militants from India’s northeastern states sheltering in Bhutan. All of this strengthened the monarchy, even if refugees or militants outside Bhutan’s borders ended up far less than happy. Even the construction of the large hydroelectric dams, which are the key to Bhutan’s sustained economic growth, have led to some displacement and ecological problems, even if they are minor ones.

Under the guidance of the Fourth King, the country grew along the path that he designated and removed any problems that he disliked. On the whole, this won him the love and loyalty of his population. There is the story of a foreigner at one of Bhutan’s schools who asked if any of the students were willing to fight for their country. None of the children raised their hands. Puzzled, the foreigner repeated the question, but this time asked if they were willing to fight for their king, and every schoolchild raised their hand. The story is possibly apocryphal, but it points to the very personalised nature of governance that existed in Bhutan.

Of course, Bhutan has not stayed a monarchy. In 2006, at the age of 52, the Fourth King abdicated in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Wangchuck, and in 2008, Bhutan conducted its first national-level elections, converting the country into a constitutional monarchy. GNH, though, remained firmly present in Bhutan’s governance idiom; it is there in the Constitution, and the Planning Commission is called the GNH Commission. If anything, it became even more prominent. One reason why this happened is because many of the newly elected politicians — foremost among them, Jigme Thinley, the first democratically elected prime minister — had served in the government before. They were familiar with what had worked earlier, and continued to work along those lines. Another was the peculiar nature of Bhutan’s democratisation process. It had been set in place by the monarchy despite there being no demand for it.

Democratic politics is dependent on opposition, but who were the fledgling political parties to oppose? They could not oppose the previous government (the monarchy) —they had served in it, and it was still far more popular than they were. So the two political parties that contested the first elections, the Druk Phuensem Tshogpa (DPT), and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), largely promised to continue to work along the lines that the government before them had pursued. The DPT, which won two-thirds of the votes, and 45 out of 47 seats in the National Assembly, aggressively marketed this continuity by suggesting that Bhutan’s governance strategy under the monarchy had been GNH, and they would continue this.

The DPT, though, did not realise that a political party cannot replicate a monarchy. The Fourth King could define the happiness of the people as his goal, and he did so by laying out the basic principles: sustainable growth, environmental conservation, cultural continuity and good governance. But the King was answerable to himself alone. A political party, though, has to define, and convey, how such a policy is going to be implemented, and is answerable at the election booth.

The DPT and Jigme Thinley tried to come up with more concrete definitions of GNH, specific indicators to measure happiness, drawing on a great deal of research in this newly widening field. The United States, the world’s first constitutional democracy, had put the pursuit of happiness as one of the three great hopes of a free populace, but Bhutan made it into a policy, more than two centuries later. Of course, the world was interested, but it was also puzzled. Bhutan hosted conferences, and its highest representatives visited other countries to talk and learn about promoting happiness. In 2010, Bhutan did an elaborate GNH survey of its population, based on research conducted by Karma Ura at the Centre of Bhutan Studies in Thimpu. It looked at 124 variables, clustered under 33 indicators areas, of nine areas, including everything from psychological well-being to community vitality.

But it was unclear to many Bhutanese, many of them who are still dependent on farming for their livelihood, what good would come of these conferences and academic exercises for them. The DPT suffered a humbling defeat at the hands of the PDP in Bhutan’s second elections in 2013, and one of the arguments of the PDP was that the DPT spent far too much effort talking about GNH, and doing far too little to take care of the population.

It seems that political parties in a democratic system face significant challenges in the pursuit of happiness. And it is not really clear whether a government can, or should be in the business of making people happy. But by putting the happiness of its population at the centre of its policies, Bhutan, despite its small size, a tiny population of about 7 lakh people, and being sandwiched between India and China, has become an internationally relevant country. And because we all value happiness, but are not sure how to go about achieving it, the impact of Bhutan’s future choices will continue to reverberate far beyond its borders.

Omair Ahmad is the author of The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan

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