"I think I can take [US] President [Barack] Obama one-on-one in basketball,” newly elected Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said in an interview. “I’ve got some special moves.”
The prime minister is 10cm shorter than Barack Obama, so beating the US president in hoops might be a stretch. However, after his surprise election this summer, almost no one in South Asia doubts that he has special moves and he is renowned for his grit.
Four years ago while competing in the first Tour of the Dragon, billed as the most difficult one-day mountain bike race in the world, he fell and broke his jaw after riding 68km. In searing pain, he got up and rode the rest of the race — 200 more kilometers.
Tobgay, 48, was one of just two opposition members chosen by voters in Bhutan’s first parliamentary elections in 2008 and few gave him better than even odds at toppling the governing Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party in the country’s second set of national elections in July.
Several factors went his way, including a currency crisis last year and threats from India just before the vote to withdraw vital financial support. However, many analysts credit Tobgay with running an unusually disciplined campaign that included a long manifesto of specific promises. His People’s Democratic Party won 32 of 47 seats, a resounding victory.
The son of a soldier, Tobgay was sent to boarding school near Darjeeling, India, when he was five. After graduating from high school, he won a government scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh where he earned a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1991, he became a civil servant in Bhutan’s education department, but left government service in 2007 to dive into politics. He is married and has two children.
Now, he is overseeing a country of 725,000 people in the midst of one of the most thorough transformations in the world. Bhutan’s feudal system continued until 1953 and its first road was built in 1962.
“In the last few years, we have transformed beyond recognition — politically, economically and socially,” Tobgay said.
He has largely abandoned the country’s signature gross national happiness measure, its alternative to gross national product. Introduced in 1972 by Bhutanese King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, gross national happiness was seen as a way of balancing the country’s gradual embrace of modernity with an effort to preserve its traditions.
Tobgay’s predecessor, former Bhutanese prime minister Jigme Thinley, had traveled the world promoting the happiness measure, making him a popular figure among Western academics and literati, but less so among his countrymen.
Tobgay’s catalog of modest promises during the election campaign included a motorized rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for each district. Happiness was not on his list.
“Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness,” he said.
Those obstacles remain substantial, including a growing national debt and high unemployment. Bhutan’s infrastructure, still woefully inadequate, has been built almost entirely by Indian companies and laborers. At first, Bhutan relied on Indians because few Bhutanese possessed the necessary skills. Now, a more educated and urbanized younger generation is refusing construction work as beneath it.