When Bhutan was preparing for its first parliamentary elections, civil servants were mandated to remain apolitical. They must not attend political meetings. Then, the question civil servants asked was what does being apolitical mean?
Today, as the country prepares for the third national assembly elections the same rules, perhaps with more elaborations, stand. And so appears our mis(understanding) on being apolitical. Remaining apolitical, in the words of the chief advisor, is misunderstood as not even talking about politics.
The civil service has the constitutional mandate to remain apolitical. The civil service rules list eight points on what a civil servant shall not do or engage in when it concerns politics and political parties. Among the eight, civil servants are not allowed to express any opinion on politics or political parties either explicitly or implicitly.
But our understanding of being apolitical, compounded by the several rules public servants are expected to abide by, has resulted in us taking the meaning of apoliticalness a bit too far. Politicians are avoided at gatherings or not invited at all. Be it among institutions, communities and neighbours, there is a fear of being branded as aligned to political parties.
The real intention of the rule is to dissuade civil servants from campaigning for politicians or political parties. It is to deter them from becoming party workers, to maintain their neutrality and non-partisanship, not to make them disinterested in politics.
Educated lot such as the civil servants should not disengage themselves from discussing politics. Initiating a discourse on political ideologies and questioning politicians on issues that matter to the people should not be misunderstood as campaigning or politicking. Healthy discussions could inform an average voter who fear questioning to get a better understanding of what political parties stand for.
Representatives of political parties took issue on the interpretation of remaining apolitical at a democracy dialogue in May this year. They felt that its narrow interpretation has kept political parties away from the electorate. Besides the civil service, the national council, the local government and the civil society organisations are expected to remain apolitical.
Maintaining an apolitical civil service however, remains a challenge. This is one of the key issues and challenges the civil service commission has listed in all three annual reports. Asking civil servants to refrain from participating in politicking is seen as a mechanism to keep the civil service apolitical, just as keeping out religious personalities mean keeping religion above politics.
The issue is similar for other institutions. Local government officials are reportedly active in politicking and political parties in other elections. But these occurrences have become a norm, not an issue in the villages. Candidates bank on gups and tshogpas to win!
A consequence of asking civil servants and others to refrain from expressing their opinions in public is today seen in the culture of anonymity we have resorted to. Under the veil of anonymity, people say anything and everything about anyone on social media. We have not informed and educated people enough on the intent or meaning of being apolitical, nor have we done enough to educate people on responsible use of social media.
So it is not that Bhutanese are not discussing politics. We are. Only we don’t tell who we are.