“I heard you are joining politics. Are you serious? I can’t imagine, you and politics,” a close childhood friend remarked on the phone. She wasn’t alone. Similar comments and reactions poured in from many other friends. I had already undergone a fair share of arguments and justifications with my family members and relatives. This happened back in 2008, at the time of the country’s first-ever election as it transitioned into a parliamentary democracy. I was one among several other public servants who were listed as probable candidates.
Bhutan was going through an unprecedented political change. People were excited but also gravely concerned and anxious about what this change in the system of governance would mean for the country. The whole nation talked about politics, especially the urbanites, a testimony to the Election Commission of Bhutan’s success in creating awareness of the democratic process. People were curious to know who all were joining politics and forming political parties. So was the media. They ran after potential candidates to interview them and make the much sought-after political news. There was speculation, apprehension and suspicion.
Officials and individuals, well-known and otherwise, came together to form political parties. They worked discreetly on formulating party structure, ideology, candidates and several other requirements of electoral law. One of their biggest challenges was identifying eligible candidates and getting them on board. Candidates were not easy to come by as most had to come from the civil service or public organizations that were considered ‘apolitical’ entities. Therefore, parties had to be extra cautious with the names of the candidates as electoral regulation was stringent on political participation by employees from these organizations. For the individual candidates as well, it was not easy to join politics readily as they had to give up their secure jobs. Aspirants from the private sector were in a similar quandary as they had to give up their businesses.
I had no source of income but my secure and respectable government job so it was not an easy choice to leave the bureaucracy for the unpredictability and uncertainty of politics. My two children were still young and studying. Added to the fear of losing a secure livelihood were my apprehensions over the public’s perception of politics itself and the generic characterization of politicians. From what we could see of politics in the region and around the world, most of us perceived politics as something synonymous with megalomania, wealth, corrupt practices and bad conduct. Politicians were perceived negatively. That may have been the reason why most people said I was not fit for politics. Often, these concerns made me reflect deeply if I was making the right decision or not.
Many of my friends were in the same state. Despite all odds, regardless of whether I was a fit or a misfit, I finally joined the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the first party that came out publicly to contest in the historic first elections. I joined with the conviction that politics could be different and that, together with my colleagues who were also new to politics, we could create a new brand of politicians.
Despite our best efforts and our conviction to win, the first election was a big blow to the party. We were convincingly defeated, winning just two seats in the Parliament. All of us had worked hard. We had offered a good choice to the people to serve them well. But those factors did not seem to convert to votes. Where had we gone wrong? What was our failure? Such were the questions I asked myself. They still remain a mystery. This is the unpredictability and uncertainty a politician must be ready to face and accept. The post-election period was a difficult time. Many of us had to cope with our own lives, seeking odd jobs as most were the sole bread earners in their families. But most succeeded in landing good jobs or other means of earning a livelihood. I got a job in the UN Bhutan office with a portfolio in the poverty alleviation unit, a responsibility I grew passionate about and satisfied with. I joined the office with a decision to never go back to politics again. But time and circumstance do strange things.
I am one among a few who participated in all three elections. So I can proudly say that I have been part of this historic political journey. Ask if I am a seasoned politician, and I’ll say I don’t qualify. But ask me about my experiences and I will have much to share. I have gone through the ordeal of defeat, the elation of victory and the honour of serving my people, my country, and my King.
My first appearance as an aspiring politician was during the familiarization tour to my constituency in 2008. It provided me a unique opportunity to visit every nook and corner of my constituency, meet with different sections of society and understand their lives and livelihoods. Walking for weeks from village to village, crossing mountains and rivers… was a special experience. And I was not there to monitor a development project as I used to in my previous professional capacity. I was there to discuss democracy, electoral processes, how the political system would work, and how I intended to represent the people in the government and in Parliament. But such concepts seemed distant to my audience. I had to simplify the discussion mainly to local topics like crop damage by wildlife, drinking water shortage and farms roads. Road accessibility was the priority of the people in every community I visited. These discussions on palpable local matters were particularly eye-opening. That remains my most cherished memory. Had I not been in politics, such an opportunity would have never crossed my path.
My political career peaked when my party won the second election and I got to serve in the government. I was able to work in the very ministry where I had begun my career as a civil servant, the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement. Assuming a leadership position made it easier for me to make policy decisions and mobilize resources to implement important socio-economic development priorities such as road accessibility. Thus, in my tenure in the government, priority was given to national highways, gewog roads, farm roads, service expansion and improvement to main urban centres and several such other basic infrastructures, all of which boosted the country’s socio-economic development. Also, being a woman in a leadership position, I was also able to contribute to several social policy matters concerning women and children.
In politics, as some political analysts say, dirty deals must be struck to implement admirable goals and clean politics. How truly analyzed. Campaign times were always tough and stressful. Those were rough times of ceaseless commotion, disturbance and division in the communities. Accusations flew everywhere, at the parties, the candidates, and the party workers and supporters. It was bad. Instead of development issues, characterization, defamation and personal attacks took precedence. In a bid to win the hearts of the voters, contesting candidates often used morally questionable tactics and strategies. Ultimately, though, I believe that the conduct of politics boils down to the top party leaders and the contesting candidates. It is eventually the individuals that can make or break the game of politics even though the electoral laws and procedures have adequate provisions to check campaign conduct and curb bad politics and corrupt practices. In such times, the question of being a fit or misfit in politics did arise in my mind frequently.
A position of political leadership also confronts you with numerous difficult, complex and conflicting decisions. It tests the very fibre of your morality. As a political leader, you are expected to exhibit the highest level of moral values and to conduct fairly and justly all public duties and responsibilities within the rule of law. But politicians are trapped between public duty and their party obligations to keep supporters happy. It seems that if supporters are not kept happy, you are already a failed politician. I fought a continuous moral battle as I attempted to fulfil these conflicting interests, at times on the boundaries of the law. My professional conscience expected me to dispense my public duty with fairness. It is my genuine belief that where democracy fails is on this very account of scratching each other’s back. You support me to win and I then support you with public authority and public resources.
In an address to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Ministers of the second elected government during the award of Darkyen on 27 July 2013, His Majesty the King said, “For some, democracy is a platform for personal ambitions. By contributing either personal time or energy, labor or wealth to a particular political party, democracy is seen as an opportunity to mobilize the system easily without considering the process of law and merit. Whether it is business licenses and opportunities, status, positions, foreign trips, education abroad, etc., the five years of democratic rule by the winning political party can be taken as an opportunity by the supporter for such personal ambitions. The losing parties, on the other hand, experience fear, disappointment and embarrassment. Such democratic practices should never prevail in Bhutan.”
It is the sacred duty of every institution and every individual Bhutanese to ensure proper check and balance in our democracy. Critical assessments, united concerns and voices should be raised to improve and correct the elected government of the day. I believe that it is the duty of the media and also of every Bhutanese to shape the perception of politics and of the politicians. Voters have the sole authority to determine what kind of elected government they want. After all, every political party, and every individual who comes forward to participate in politics, has done so to serve the people, the country and the King.
Despite all the challenges, I have no regrets about joining politics. It was like starting a new life with new learning experiences. Politics connected me to the grassroots and enabled me to understand the people and the country better. It gave me the opportunity to understand democracy and the democratic system better.
Of all, my biggest accomplishment which I revere with humility and a sense of deep satisfaction was being able to serve at the highest level of government under the guidance of His Majesty the King. I have drawn immense inspiration from the leadership of His Majesty. Although young, his vision, wisdom, compassion and selflessness towards His country and people are unfathomable. The internal profoundness is shielded with outer simplicity, humility and kindness. He is a brother
figure to the youth, a caring King for the common citizen, and a wise teacher to public servants. His Majesty will remain the guiding star for future generations in democratic Bhutan. For the extraordinary political journey that I was able to make, I owe my gratitude to the People’s Democratic Party and the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa. They provided me with the platforms to be part of democratization and the nation’s historic political transformation.
-Dasho Dorji Choden, Vice President