Rule of the mob

Last week, when the government introduced the Land bill 2012, I had exhorted the MPs to reject the motion to discuss the Bill. The prime minister reacted strongly to my statement, disagreeing with all my arguments. I had wanted to respond to the prime minister’s strident remarks, but had not been given leave to do so.

It would have been good if we had had the opportunity to discuss my arguments and the PM’s counterarguments in a bit more detail. But we didn’t. There were several issues that I thought merited the Assembly’s, and the nation’s, attention through discussion, perhaps even debate.

One of them had to do with a very basic concept: democracy.

Responding to my views that ministers should not be included in the Land Commission, the prime minister accused me of not supporting the democracy. This, specifically, is what he said:

“The opposition leader’s lack of trust in the elected representatives is equivalent to his distrust in the people, who elected them and the process of democracy.”

This is not the first time this issue has surfaced. On various occasions, the government has claimed that they have won the people’s mandate – an overwhelming mandate, in fact – but that they do not have the powers to fulfill their promises and the people’s expectations.

True, the people have given the DPT the mandate to govern our country. And true, the DPT won with a huge majority. But that does not mean that they can govern our country in any way they please. They must conform to the laws of the land.

We have laws. And our laws define how the elected representatives of the people must govern our country. And they legitimize the powers of the government. But our laws authorize power to various other institutions too, to provide the checks and balances that are important for a healthy democracy. And most importantly, our laws, clearly and purposely limit the powers of the elected government.

The Constitution and other laws provide extensive powers to the government. But they do not give the government absolute powers. As such, they must abide by and work within the framework of the laws. Yes, the government can use their majority to affect policy and to amend laws to their favour, even if the people may not agree with them. That’s why many refer to democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

So long as the actions of the majority are consistent with the laws of the land, there’s nothing much we, the people, can do. Yes, we can, and must, voice our concerns if we do not agree with the government’s actions. But we cannot reject them. In the final analysis we must accept the tyranny of our majority, as long as what they do is within the framework of our laws.

But sometimes, a powerful government, one that commands an overwhelming majority, may be tempted to use their numbers to ignore important laws and bulldoze their way to achieve narrow political objectives. That, obviously, would be illegal. That is not democracy. That, put simply, is the rule of the mob.

Bhutan is a democracy. But we are a democracy as defined by the Constitution, not as it is defined in India or America or in any other country. And certainly not as defined by individuals to serve their immediate interests.

Democracy is about the rule of law. And our laws, especially the Constitution, legitimizes a range of powers to the government. But they also deliberately limit certain powers. Our duty, as citizens of Bhutan, is to support and participate in democracy, but only as defined by the laws of our land.

What we need to watch out for is the rule of the mob. We must be extra vigilant when a powerful government uses the “democracy card” to legitimize illegal actions. That would be illegal. And very dangerous. Our sacred duty, as citizens of Bhutan, is to stay  vigilant and prepare to fight, if need be, against the sinister forces of the rule of the mob.


Mistaken government

The Government has used our foreign currency reserves to address a severe rupee crunch in the kingdom. Last week they sold US$ 200 million from our reserves to pay off the Rs 8 billion outstanding debt on an overdraft account with the State Bank of India.

The Royal Monetary Authority borrows rupees from a special credit line with the Government of India and an overdraft facility maintained with the State Bank of India. The special arrangement with the Government of India permits our government to borrow rupees up to a maximum of Rs 3 billion, and the overdraft facility allows borrowings up to Rs 8 billion.

The RMA had exhausted both lines of credit before it recently cleared the Rs 8 billion loan.

The government has been remarkably quiet on the issue. So here are some questions, questions I will take up officially with them.

What caused the rupee crisis?

We import more goods and services from India than we export. So our trade balance with India is negative. And that causes a rupee deficit. But that has always been so. And that – the trade balance and the resulting rupee deficit – has always been easily resolved by the large amounts of rupees that the Indian government pumps into our economy in the form of generous aid to our government.

So why did we face such a big rupee crisis recently? Why did we have to borrow as much as Rs 11 billion to finance the rupee deficit? Rs 8 billion of that was borrowed in the past year alone, and that, in spite of increased Indian grant aid and huge inflows of rupees for the construction of mega projects.

The government has had to sell US$ 200 million to address the rupee deficit. Otherwise, RMA would not have been able to maintain the ngultrum’s exchange peg with the rupee. And we wouldn’t have been able to continue buying goods and services from India.

In other words, our economy was in serious trouble.

And the government had to bail it out by injecting US$ 200 million into it. US$ 200 million works out to Nu 10.3 billion at the current exchange rate. That works out to 14% of the GDP. And that is a huge bailout by any measure.

So why was our economy in such big trouble? What caused the rupee crisis?

What must be done to prevent another crisis?

Our foreign exchange reserves are not reserves in the strict sense – they are actually savings accrued carefully over several decades. The government has used US$ 200 million of it, in one go, to bail out our economy.

It’s obvious that if we don’t do anything different, if we don’t learn from our mistake, we will face another big rupee deficit by this time next year. Should that happen, the Constitution, which requires that foreign currency reserves must meet at least one year’s essential imports, will prevent the government from selling our foreign reserves for Indian currency. This simply means that the government will not be able to bail out the economy as easily as it has done this time.

So the question is, what must we do to prevent a similar crisis next year? How will the government prevent another rupee deficit from developing? What are the government’s plans?

How will the foreign exchange reserves be rebuilt?

The government has announced that the current reserves, equivalent to US$ 702 million, can finance 13 months of essential import. So even though the government has used up more than 20% of our reserves, what remains is still within the minimum limit set by Constitution according to which, “A minimum foreign currency reserve that is adequate to meet the cost of not less than one year’s essential import must be maintained.”

US$ 702 million at today’s exchange rate of Nu 51.5 for every US$ is about Nu 36.1 billion. And RMA has calculated that this amount – US$ 702 or Nu 36.1 billion – finances 13 months of essential imports. By dividing Nu 36.1 billion by 13 and multiplying it by 12 we now know that Nu 33.4 billion would be required to finance one year’s essential imports. The Constitution requires that the government set aside a minimum of this amount in the foreign exchange reserve.

But by this time next year, if the current trend continues, the volume of essential imports would have increased. That, plus inflation, would mean that the government would need set aside that that much more money in foreign currency to meet the minimum requirements set out in the Constitution.

But since the reserves must be maintained in foreign currency, there’s something else the government must think about: exchange rates.

Today the exchange rate has fallen to an all-time low. What when it strengthens? What if, by this time next year or the following year, the exchange rate rises to 2008 levels of Nu 40.4 per US$? That would mean that US$ 827 million would be required to finance one year’s essential imports at today’s quantity and today’s prices.

That would mean that the government would need to increase the foreign currency reserves by at least US$ 125 million. And that is without even factoring in increased consumption of essential imports and price increases for the essential imports.

The government has spent US$ 200 million. And the government has stated that the US$ 702 million remaining as foreign currency reserves is enough to meet the Constitutional requirements.

What we now need to know is how the government will replenish the foreign currency reserves to ensure that the reserves remain well within the minimum limits set by the Constitution. How will the government rebuild our foreign currency reserves?

Our economy was in serious trouble – that’s why the government used our foreign currency reserves. But that is only a stopgap measure, one that does not address the real issues and one that can be used only this once.

So the government must get serious. The government must identify its mistakes. The government must accept those mistakes. And the government must rectify those mistakes.

Otherwise, our economy, tiny as it is, will collapse.

Conflicting news

How is it that one week the government calls McKinsey’s Accelerating Bhutan’s Socioeconomic Development project “A success story”, and the next week the government has used our foreign currency reserves to “rescue Bhutan from rupee crisis”?

Why would our economy need to be bailed out by using our hard earned foreign exchange reserves if the McKinsey project really was “…an initiative that created 14,000 new jobs in two years, helped tourist arrival cross the magical 50,000 figure, and will save the government Nu 360mn within its tenure, among numerous other benefits” ?

Saving face

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government violated the Constitution by raising taxes without seeking the Parliament’s approval.

This is a landmark verdict. But the verdict should not be seen as a loss for the government. Nor should it be seen as a win for the opposition party. In fact it should be seen, and celebrated, for what it really is: a resounding victory for the democratic process.

Even so, the government made a mistake – a serious mistake – by imposing taxes unilaterally and, in so doing, violated the Constitution. For that, the government must accept moral responsibility.

Naturally, how the government exercises moral responsibility for their transgressions is their business. It is an internal matter, but one that is important, as it will set the standards for government accountability.

In this instance, however – for imposing taxes unlawfully – the government should just accept that they had made a mistake, apologize for it, and move on.

Apologize and move on, that’s what the government should do.

Instead the government has responded to the Supreme Court’s decision in other ways, all of which is exactly what the government should not do.

First and foremost, the government should not tell people that they have been prevented from raising taxes. That’s not true. The constitutional case did not question the need to raise taxes, including the tax on vehicles.

Taxes are needed, there’s no doubt about that. And taxes must be raised, especially to meet national goals. But taxes can be raised only in accordance with the procedures enshrined in the Constitution. And that’s what the Supreme Court’s verdict is about – how to impose taxes.

The government can and must raise taxes. But when they do so, they, like all of us, must follow the law.

Second, the government should not threaten people that they will not receive electricity or roads or other development work, because they can no longer accept grants and raise loans. Again, not true.

The constitutional case was about the procedure to raise taxes, not about accepting grants or loans. The Supreme Court has even clarified that the government has the authority to accept grants and raise loans.

Third, the government should not claim that the Supreme Court’s verdict has weakened democracy. It has not. On the contrary, the constitutional case and the verdict have strengthened the democratic process. Various institutions – including the Parliament, the ruling party, the opposition, the executive, the media and, most importantly, the judiciary – played their respective roles to safeguard the Constitution and to ensure that its provisions are understood and obeyed.

The constitutional case and the verdicts of the courts have strengthened the rule of law. That surely is good for democracy.

And finally, the government should not threaten to resign. No one has asked for any resignation. Talk about resignation – either individually or en masse – is irresponsible. It is also dangerous. Having threatened resignation the government may find it hard to save face without actually resigning.

Vast paintings

A painting of the Punakha Dzong has graced the banner of this website for about two weeks. The beautiful painting was created by Rajesh Gurung.

I saw Rajesh Gurung’s Punakha Dzong at the VAST gallery. It’s still there if you’d like to see it. And so are many other paintings, all by Bhutanese artists. I’ve uploaded photographs of a few of the paintings to tempt you to visit the VAST gallery.

Enjoy …

BBS and the government

Enough protection?

Last week, Parliament authorized the government to review the mandate of BBS. I’m against the government meddling in BBS’s affairs. But our lawmakers feel that the country’s only TV station is underperforming. And that the government should intervene to give BBS vision and the means to achieve that vision.

So what’s the first move that the government makes? It directs BBS to go 24/7. And it does so without consulting anyone in BBS. Our national broadcaster struggles to generate sufficient content for the five hours it goes on air each day, and the government, unilaterally, directs BBS to broadcast round the clock. This directive does not augur well for television in Bhutan.

BBS is essentially a non-commercial public service broadcaster. So the state should subsidize its operations. How much? That, the government should decide.

But the government should not interfere in how BBS is run. That is the job of the Managing Director and the Board of Directors – ultimately they are the ones responsible for ensuring that BBS is able to inform, educate and entertain our people, and for protecting its editorial independence.

And that, precisely, was the reason why BBS was delinked from the government in the first place. The Royal Kasho establishing BBS as an autonomous corporation was issued way back on 18 September 1992. But its message is timeless. In fact, it’s even more relevant today. So, to remind ourselves, I’m reproducing the translation of that Royal Kasho: [Continue Reading…]

Dangerous standoff

So yesterday, it was our agriculture minister’s turn. He too didn’t show up for the National Council’s “Question Time”. And the Council had to adjourn, yet again.

The National Council Act, which we passed just last year, authorizes the Council to: “… summon any person to attend the proceedings of the National Council …” The act also empowers the National Council to “…call the attention of a minister to any matter of urgent public importance” and to “…question the Government during Question Time.”

If our ministers feel that they do not need to report to the National Council, they should explain that to them. It‘s a matter of common decency. And, a matter of the law.

But, if our ministers refuse to justify their absence, the National Council should call on them to explain why they need to attend the Council’s Question Time.

This standoff is unnecessary. And it is dangerous.

About the constitution

Kuensel is correct for being concerned that the 12 “dzongdags’ transfer flouts BCSR rule”. The newspaper is also correct for being concerned that RCSC rules may have been broken. And correct for pointing out that our government is “not above the law.”

But, as serious as Kuensel’s concerns already are, we should be even more seriously concerned. Why? Because our cabinet’s offense is not limited to breaking BCSR and RCSC rules. Instead, our cabinet may have knowingly broken the provisions of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Article 2, Section 19(q) of our constitution states that “The Druk Gyalpo shall, by warrant under His hand and seal, appoint: … Dzongdags on the recommendation of the Prime Minister who shall obtain nominations from the Royal Civil Service Commission.”

All 12 dzongdags who recently received transfers are qualified and experienced. And they probably make very good chief executives in the dzgonkhags. But, for democracy’s sake, respect the rule of law. Respect our constitution.

So the government should apologize for their transgressions; rescind the transfers of the 12 dzongdags; and follow due process to appoint the 12 dzongdags as enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Cribbing right

Responding to “Government awards media awards” kikisoso called me a cribber. This is what kikisoso wrote:

The easiest job in the world is to crib. The task at hand is to provide beter and viable alternatives.
OL, let us hear your alternative plans that are more well thought out than just wishful thinking. media people judging themselves will be a bloody melee ….
I think we should learn the lessons of this award and make it more credible next time around – you know, no jury winners (what a balony), better and more broadbased jury selection, awards for ‘body of works’ and not one report …. and what not, By teh way, what was the Dashos at the helm of MOIC doing, eating peanuts … how could they let such grave inadequacies slip by? Too busy arranging te folds of their ghos and colourful kabneys???
Until then , let us refrain from cribbing – the easiest job in the world.

The reason I raise an issue is to draw attention to it. I do so my sharing my opinions on the issue, fully aware that they are just that: an individual’s opinion.

I try not to present solutions. Doing so would take the focus away from the issue. And it would be arrogant. Anyway, I do not have solutions to every problem. And even when I think I have one, that solution may not be the best one.

So the idea is to share my opinion on an issue, even if I’m seen to be “cribbing”. I believe that this allows our readers, including kikisoso, to express their considered opinions on the issue. And to discuss how they would address the issue; how they would solve the problem.

And this is exactly what kikisoso has done. Kikisoso has expressed critical views on an issue (i.e, cribbed) and called for the awards to be made more credible in the future. I find kikisoso’s views useful. And I hope that the media and the government pay attention to them.

As for the “better and viable alternatives” that kikisoso calls for, we fist need to understand the issue. For me the issue is not the credibility of the awards. I’m not cribbing about how the selections were conducted. Or that they may not have been fair.

For me the real issue is preventing government involvement and control in the media, no matter how small the risks may appear to be. So when our government organizes the media awards, and must decide who wins and who doesn’t, I’m naturally concerned. I’m worried that our government could, knowingly or otherwise, influence our otherwise promising media.

Now for a possible “alternative plan” to minimize the risk of government interference in the media. Many countries have press clubs. And I understand that our media are trying to form a journalists association. Such an association would be the most qualified to decide how to conduct future media awards without unhealthy outside influences.

Will that rule out controversy at future awards? No! You can bet that there will be controversy. But remember the issue: government interference in the media. That issue, I can say confidently, would have been addressed.

Investigating rewards?

The First Annual Media Award’s prize for Investigative Report of the Year, the award’s most prestigious category, went to Kuensel’s Phuntsho Choden. This came as no surprise. Phuntsho is good. Well done.

But what did come as a surprise was Tenzing Lamsang. I dare say that Tenzing has contributed significantly to the development of a free media in our country since returning to Bhutan after a stint with the Indian Express, one of India’s biggest and most respected newspapers. From politics and government to the civil service and business, he’s covered a lot of ground. And he’s done his share of investigating. He works hard: I’ve seen him in action. And he’s brave: I’ve read his stories. So, by our standards, his work is indeed very good.

Now what surprised me yesterday was not that he didn’t win. But that he wasn’t even nominated for the investigative report category. In fact, Tenzing Lamsang was not nominated in any of the four categories that he had participated in – his name was not mentioned at all yesterday.

I’m shocked. And I’m disappointed.