Lobsang Sangay is the prime minister of a country that doesn’t exist. His government fills a moldy cluster of yellow brick buildings clinging to an Indian hillside. His budget depends on donor countries and wealthy supporters.
However, with his well-tailored suits and carefully practiced sound bites, Sangay is something new in this tattered hill town, home to Tibet’s government-in-exile.
He is an openly ambitious politician in a culture that traditionally frowns on self-promotion. He is comfortable in front of TV cameras, charismatic and, his critics say, willing to sow divisiveness to win votes. In a town where power has long rested with elderly Buddhist monks and exiled bureaucrats who fled Chinese-ruled Tibet, he spent 16 years polishing his resume at Harvard.
And unlike his predecessor, he is not venerated as a god-king.
Sangay, 43, is the first prime minister since Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama stepped down as head of the exile government last year.
The Dalai Lama’s “popularity, charisma, leadership — it cannot be replicated,” Sangay said.
Sangay came to power in what might be the most critical moment for Tibet in a generation: A wave of Tibetans have burned themselves alive to protest Chinese rule, Beijing is undergoing a leadership transition and the 76-year-old Dalai Lama is speaking openly of his eventual death.
“Tibet is in crisis,” said Youdong Aukatsang, a New Delhi-based member of the exile parliament. “But this is also a historic moment for us, with His Holiness deciding to give up his political position. Lobsang Sangay symbolizes this turning point.”
Exile politics, long a genteel arena that plodded along in the Dalai Lama’s shadow, has never seen anything like Sangay.
“Tibetans normally want their leaders to be dignified and distant. Lobsang Sangay went to the people,” said Tsering Shakya, a scholar of modern Tibet at the University of British Columbia.
Sangay’s two rivals were older men who had spent decades in the exile government. Their campaigns were what people expected: a few speeches, occasional interviews, reaching out to friends of friends.
Sangay, though, launched a campaign blitz.
He embarked on a whirlwind tour of Tibetan exile communities, shaking hands and giving speeches from India to Minnesota. His supporters created Web sites to back his campaign. Mild criticisms were met with volleys of online denials. He relentlessly touted his hardscrabble childhood, the son of a struggling farmer and trader in the Indian hills.
Despite spending almost his entire adult life at Harvard, first as a law student and then as a research fellow, he became a master of Clintonian I-feel-your-pain rhetoric, selling himself as a man of the people.
“I understand and can empathize with the average Tibetans,” he told the online Tibetan Political Review, speaking of his childhood in a refugee settlement. “I know what it feels like to go through another season of poor harvest.”
At times, it was an uncanny echo of US politics: A handsome man with well-combed hair, a small-town stump speech and outsized ambitions.
It was also a shock to the Tibetan establishment.
“For some people this was distasteful,” Shakya said. “But this is something you learn in America: If you want something, you go and get it.”
Sangay got it, winning more votes than his two rivals combined. While only about one-third of the global exile community’s 150,000 people voted (6 million more Tibetans live in China, though it was extremely difficult for them to cast ballots), his election was seen as a turn against an older generation of Tibetan officials.