It is being speculated on by many that DPT might possibly score another sweeping victory this election in July. But, gauging public opinion largely in Thimphu, the cranes may not get to return and rule the roost again.
A historic win in 2008 presented the DPT with a historic opportunity. Some opportunities they seized, some they wasted, the Toyota Prado being one such opportunity they did seize. Not literally, of course. But, who would have imagined that a Japanese vehicle of all the things in the wide world would rev up a controversy in Bhutan?
When news broke that the former Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Speaker of the National Assembly, Chairman of the National Council and the Opposition Leader would be allowed to keep their government duty Toyota Prado Land Cruisers, public reaction ranged from sheer disbelief to outrage.
At a time when the country has been seeing officials like members of the parliament constantly put their benefits before those of the public, and when people are looking for leadership in setting standards in public service, this came as yet another disappointment.
This outrage was further compounded when it was learned that the ruling government had possibly asked to keep the vehicles as kidu from His Majesty the King, who graciously granted the request.
While most were quick to point out that this was a display of sheer greed by the DPT officials, others stood divided on whether the party shouldn’t be judged by their last action. If one group pointed to the DPT’s ability to turn things around for themselves, the other said the party had time and again been tested and often been found wanting.
There are moments when even the most trenchant of the DPT’s critics have to believe that there is more to the party than its love of entitlements. And these are the moments when, like a professional athlete, the party has to outmaneuver its opponent and critics at the last minute and dash to victory at the finish line. Instead, it was the Opposition Leader (OL) who showed enough strategic flair.
The Prado has now become a national discussion no one quite knows how to hang up on.
In the early days of his political career, former OL Tshering Tobgay had a tendency to go on a bit, seemingly opposing for the sake of opposing. While there were times when his arguments against the government were weak, he did question many pertinent issues that got the public thinking and allowing them a different point of view. His advantage is that he is from a younger generation than most DPT ministers, is politically savvy and knows when to cash in. While his returning of the Prado is being seen as an extremely political move, he did what was right and that seems to sit well with the generation that is becoming extremely restless at the blatant misuse of office by some.
On the day the cabinet was dissolved, he returned his blue Prado to the government. Although he denied any political motivation despite having invited the press to cover the event, he seemed determined to have the last word as the country’s first opposition. And he did.
His argument was simple. He said it was morally wrong. Simply because His Majesty was requested by no other than the former Prime Minister himself, and that it was tantamount to disrespecting those who struggled to meet daily sustenance.
In response, the DPT sent out a press release expressing their ‘deep sadness’ that Soelra from His Majesty the King was being made an issue before the elections. And that ‘some people’, obviously referring to Tshering Tobgay and his supporters, were stooping to the lowest common denominator to sow discord and bring about discontentment.
Without statistical research that can define or question a custom, ideas become clichés and arguments become sound bites. And soon, the sound bite becomes an infectious form of communication among the masses, who are then led by this enforced wisdom. What if one was to ask about the DPT’S motive behind such a statement?
Somehow, their justification fell flat. It is like the saying, if the only tool in your kit is a hammer, every issue will appear to be a nail. In the context of the DPT, it seems, their only measure of defense lies in spinning the issue and nailing it down with a hammering approach. At times, even labeling shocking aberrations as customs while, at other times, coming across as inflexible, pompous and very pleased with themselves.
Sadly, what DPT failed to realize through their actions and short-sightedness was that there were many things that worked against them in asking for the vehicles.
The country, of late, has not been doing well economically. The national debt is more than Nu 83 billion (which translates to 82% of GDP) and projected to grow exponentially in the next few years. Short term Indian rupee borrowings has already crossed Rs 21 billion, creating an Indian rupee crisis of sorts, the brunt of which must be borne by the common man.
In such a scenario, if Tshering Tobgay doesn’t accept the vehicle saying it would contribute to the problem further because the next government will have to import new vehicles for the new batch of elected leaders, wasn’t it (returning the vehicle) the right thing to do?
It is estimated that over Nu 50 million will have to be spent to procure the 14 duty vehicles gifted, but that is only if the same make vehicles are purchased. Add to that sales and green tax and the figure will reach upward of Nu 80 million. Of course, here one could argue that vehicles imported for ministers are exempt of tax. Yet Nu 50 million is a big amount for a country that relies on aid.
DPT, during its tenure, imposed a ban on import of all types of vehicles, discontinued vehicle quotas for civil servants, and stopped banks from giving loans for vehicle purchases. The result was that ordinary folks and car businesses suffered. Against such a backdrop, isn’t it morally wrong, like Tshering Tobgay pointed out, to take official vehicles and compel the next government to import new ones with taxpayer money? Or is pointing out a folly, sowing discord?
Yes, it is understandable if you reason that the Prados were well deserved as the elected members had served the country for the past five years. It is also understandable if you reason that Members of Parliament are given Nu 700,000 and a duty free quota to purchase a vehicle at the beginning of their terms, while the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, Speaker, NC Chairman, and the Opposition Leader are not. But, whatever your reasoning, or mine, the Prado has now become a national discussion no one quite knows how to hang up on.
The issue seems to have spawned a joke factory that churns out innovative ways to provide answers. Like, yes, if I become a minister, and I serve the country for five years, I might probably ask to keep my bungalow in the ministers’ enclave.
But it is, unfortunately, no joking matter.
This question was in fact asked to the new political party’s on a social media forum, but much to the dismay of the questioner, there was no answer. Sadly, it seems that Bhutanese who are seeking office can’t seem to take a stand on what is wrong or right on such a simply issue when most voters seem to know the answer.
The irony of it all struck me when a chilip friend of mine remarked: “Everybody in Bhutan wants to ride a big, sturdy SUV, but nobody wants to drive it on a rough, dirty road.”