Election in exile

Tibetans refugees will elect their new Prime Minister on March 20.

Tibetans refugees will elect their new Prime Minister on March 20.

He is known as “Sikyong” or “Political Leader” in opposition to the “Spiritual Leader”, the Dalai Lama, who in March 2011 decided that the time had come for Tibet to become a true democracy and have an elected leader instead of someone ruling by virtue of his birth-right, as the incarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva-patron of Tibet.

It was a great move from the Dalai Lama; it annoyed Beijing immensely. The current Chinese leadership does not believe in “elections” and democratic norms. Though the Communist Party rules on behalf of the masses, the masses’ participation is not required.

On December 4, 2015, the Election Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration declared the results of the preliminary round for the Sikyong election.

Two candidates with the largest number of votes, Lobsang Sangay, the incumbent Prime Minster, a Fulbright scholar who graduated from Harvard Law School, and Penpa Tsering, the present Parliament-in-exile Speaker, were shortlisted by the Election Commission. They had respectively gathered 30,508 and 10,732 votes.

The second round, on March 20, seemed played in advance. It may not be so. But let us first look at the Tibetan society.

In most places, there is often an anti-incumbency factor against politicians in power. Candidates are extremely good at making tall promises which, later, they are unable to fulfil. This is the beauty of democracy: Voters can register their dissatisfaction with an elected leader by sending him back to the starting blocks, i.e. “normal” life.

Things are different in the Tibetan society where there is immense respect for the established hierarchy. In fact, many believe that the Dalai Lama had to “force democracy” down reluctant Tibetan throats; everybody was quite happy to depend on their wise leader to guide and tell them what to do with their lives, but the Tibetan leader had a greater vision.

Years ago, I interviewed a senior Indian military intelligence officer who was sent to Tibet in 1949 to prepare a report on the threats coming from China, when I asked him what struck him the most during his several weeks mission in Tibet, he said: The sense of hierarchy! As an Indian officer educated by the British, he was deeply shocked to see “common men” prostrating in front of passing lamas or officials, without even knowing their identity; these ordinary folks did not even dare to look up.

Things have changed in exile, but this deep veneration for the leader/lamas has remained ingrained in the Tibetan psyche. Everyone still addresses a “leader” as “kusho-la, kusho-la” (Sir-ji, Sir-ji), with the outmost reverence.

In this election, it is interesting to note that there is no anti-incumbency vote and that partially explains Mr Sangay’s high score during the first round.

But the dye has not been cast.

Less than a month before the final round, out of the blue, Dicki Chhoyang, one of the senior ministers in the Kashag (Cabinet), resigned.

In her statement, the Canada-born minister of information and international relations said that she would like to “participate in the discussions leading up to the March 20, 2016 general election”, and could not do so as a minister.

She admitted that the time was pressing: “H.H. the Dalai Lama is 80 years old We are blessed by his presence during this critical historical juncture, but great challenges are yet to come. We must be ready to face them. There is no time to be lost.”

Though not saying openly that she would vote for Penpa Tsering (she said so a few days later), her statement contained “some personal character traits” which I considers important for the (Sikyong) to have.

Her list makes interesting reading: motivation and dedication to the collective interest, the ability to think holistically and with a long-term vision, to be honest, a team player, value substance over appearance, respectful of others, humble, etc.

A perspicacious observer could ask, does she mean that the incumbent Prime Minister does not have these qualities

It is up to the people to decide.

She added one issue that has historically plagued the Tibetan society —regionalism. “The current electoral campaign season has strong regional overtones. This is destructive. We must teach our children to think of themselves as Tibetan first.”

She further had a point when she concluded: “We have a moral duty to prioritise issues touching the 98 per cent of Tibetans living in Tibet.”

What are India’s interests in this election

More than one lakh Tibetans are refugees in India; they are a vibrant and mostly peaceful community, rarely in the news for the wrong reasons.

The fact that the Dalai Lama has “imposed” a democratic system is important for India. It simply corresponds to India’s values and should definitively be encouraged.

With the Dalai Lama getting older, it is crucial for Delhi to have a solid interlocutor, someone who can speak on behalf of the Tibetan community.

Historically, in Tibet, religious leaders, especially in the interregnum between two Dalai Lamas, have triggered instability (verging on a civil war in 1947 when the two regents violently opposed each other). It is one of the reasons why the Dalai Lama has opted for democracy, a far-more stable system.

It is crucial for the next Sikyong to establish a good working relation with the present government in Delhi. The incumbent seems to have failed in this regard.

The Chinese leadership is always steps ahead of Dharamsala. Not only has Beijing worked for more than a decade on the issue of “reincarnation’, it is flooding the plateau with mainland tourists, changing the demography and landscape of the “Roof of the World”.

More than 50 million yearly visitors have been the pretext of expanding the border infrastructure — hurriedly construct railways, roads and airports all leading to India.

The new, elected leader will to have to be able to take up these issues with Delhi. For all these reasons, the new man in the Sikyong’s seat in Dharamsala is vital to Delhi.

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.

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