The New Face of Bhutan’s Democracy

From a Harvard graduate who loved John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”, to becoming a director in the civil service, to serving as the first opposition leader in democratic Bhutan, and now taking over as the prime minister, Tshering Tobgay’s journey has indeed panned out like a line from the song, “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans …”.

An article by Mitra Raj Dhital, from the Raven Magazine, July – August 2013

About five years ago, as Bhutan geared up for its first parliamentary elections, Tshering Tobgay sat in Thimphu’s Swiss Bakery, sipping black coffee and speaking breezily about the office he was then contesting for. “I don’t know what a good politician is,” he had said, “I think it is the ability to see the world through the eyes of the people and be able to fulfill their hopes and aspirations. According to that definition, I will make a fantastic politician.”

Those who knew him then will remember him as a man with a not-so-firm handshake. Many thought of him as conniving, with impressive connections and a hunger to get ahead. Tshering Tobgay smiled at all of them. After the elections, when critics said that a two-member opposition would be stamped out by the government, he still smiled at all of them. Even when his party members walked out form the PDP and regrouped with a third political party, he smiled at all of them.

Then, on July 13, last month, even to Tshering Tobgay’s surprise perhaps, the PDP was voted to power with him at the helm. He hasn’t stopped smiling since.

Those who see him now know him as Bhutan’s second democratically elected Prime Minister – his party having won 32 of the 47 seats in parliament. Yet, the handshake is still the same – not-so-firm. Apparently, that is how he would like to keep his grip on power.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has never been the sort of person whose presence commands immediate outward respect. Perhaps because he is the son of ordinary folks – who worked his way up to the top, step by step. Even now, as he holds the highest office in government, he does not have the haughty swagger associated with people in high positions. He talks quickly, fidgets with his i-phone and breaks into a smile every time he speaks, like a boy – edgy at suddenly being cast in the spotlight.

At the first press conference after the election results were announced, he seemed nervous – far from the image of a seasoned politician – as he fidgeted with the papers on the table before reading out his message to the nation. “We already have His Majesty as a national icon and I am an ordinary person. Please don’t make me larger than life,” he told a few of us aside, after the conference.

“He was never a baddie,” says his schoolmate from Dr. Graham’s Homes, Tashi P. Wangdi, “In fact, he was an introvert. But once he set his mind on something, he’d always get there.” Having served five years as the leader of the world’s smallest opposition, Tshering Tobgay, who is now 48, has achieved so much success and admiration that he seems more a strategist than a prime minister.

In the past five years, as a politician, one apparent aspect of Tshering Tobgay that stood out was his ability to adapt. To make up the opposition’s lack of numbers in parliament, Tshering Tobgay whole-heartedly adopted social media, almost at par with today’s geekiest, to make sure the opposition was always heard. Some even hailed his blog, which he maintained and updated regularly, as the best assessment of the ruling government. And it was through his blog that we got a behind-the-scenes view into a man whose role then was to balance government – away from the media and the limelight.

Today, many among those not inclined to recognize “politician” as a complimentary term, refer to him, with some pride, as “the only politican who is different.” Still, some of Tshering Tobgay’s closest friends can’t bring themselves to call him a politician, even if he’s expertly managed to broaden his electoral base in the past five years.

“Somehow the title of prime minister will not go to his head,” says a childhood friend of his, on the condition of anonymity. “He is very grounded. If you look at him closely, you’ll always find the same expression on his face not matter what the situation. Only people who are composed and focused are unflinching.”

After assuming office as the opposition leader in 2008, he had written on his blog that Bhutan’s first asset was the monarchy. “This important institution which is the essence and very basis of our Kingdom, must be protected, nurtured and cherished by all Bhutanese – in body, speech and mind – so that future generations can enjoy what we today take for granted.” The second, he said, was obviously the constitution. “This sacred document, gifted to us from the Golden Throne, must be defended – rights enjoyed and duties fulfilled – by all Bhutanese, for all time.”

Yet , somehow, even today, people have divided opinions about Tshering Tobgay. While some feel he has enough strategic flair, others say he likes to portray himself as someone being above the snobbery – shaking everybody’s hands everywhere, for instance. But those close to him vouch that his handshakes are genuine. “He is a private person. And when he meets people, he is genuine in his interactions. That is the way he is,” say Tshering Tobgay’s brother. “But somehow, people always read too much into it.”

For example, if he rejected that pilot vehicles and police personnel allocated for his personal security, it is because he is uncomfortable under such surroundings, opines another friend. “He could have easily agreed to it all, but he didn’t. And, that speaks volumes of the kind example that he wants to set.”

Indeed, Tshering Tobgay is accustomed to frugality. When he resigned from his cushy government job to become a politician six years ago, he was not uncomfortable depending financially on his wife as long as he could concentrate on strengthening his party’s efforts. “It will be a loss for the country if PDP doesn’t come into power,” Tshering Tobgay had said to me in 2007. “I think the country will regret it because PDP structure is very strong on democratic principles.”

Nevertheless, give his party’s humiliating defeat then, as the opposition, he adhered to the constitution, offered alternatives, and took relevant action when he believed the ruling government was not sticking to the country’s laws, even suing them and winning the first constitutional case in his favor.

Today, Tshering Tobgay leads a party that has won an election with more than a two-thirds majority in the parliament. He has proven he is a “fantastic politician”. But his party has also been given the opportunity and mandate to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of a nation and its people. What Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay does here on and how he goes about his dealings will make it exactly known how fantastic he is as a statesman.