Tshering Tobgay | Second coming 

Tshering Tobgay | Second coming 

The 58-year old politician, whose party won 30 out of 47 seats in Bhutan’s parliamentary elections, says his Himalayan country is open for business

For the newly elected 58-year old Prime Minister of Bhutan, understatement and modesty are often devices to overpower his audience. Stepping up to the podium at the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ conclave in India in 2015 during his previous tenure (2013-18), Tshering Tobgay faced a daunting task: to make an impression with others at the event, including host Prime Minister Narendra Modi, other heads of government, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, World Bank President Jim Kim, and dozens of Indian business tycoons. “Our economy is small, with a GDP of barely $1.7 billion; I am acutely aware that many of the delegates here are worth more individually,” he began, saying in fluent Hindi that he was on an “economic pilgrimage” to India.

Once the laughter died down, however, he came in for the punch. “Our economy may be small, but we have used our resources wisely. Healthcare, for example, is completely free, so is education. Our economy may be small, but it is green and sustainable,” he added. “Bhutan is open for business,” he said, but that only “sustainable” investment would be welcomed, one that folded in with Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy, that he said was more important than the GDP of a country.

His speech came in for thunderous applause, with many of the leaders no doubt wondering if they had been unexpectedly upstaged. Few knew that the seemingly modest bespectacled young man wearing a traditional Bhutanese ‘Goh’, had once studied at school in India, Dr. Graham’s Home in Kalimpong.

He then graduated from Bhutan’s eastern Sherubtse College, took an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania while on a UN scholarship, and a Master’s degree in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. After a few years in civil service, he resigned to help found Bhutan’s first registered political party — the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). His speeches and TED talks on environmental issues, as well as regular social media posts and blogs, where he signs off simply as ‘TT’, keep him connected with constituents and the Bhutanese diaspora.

After being elected again this month, five years after he was ousted by voters in the first round of previous elections in 2018, an election that put him into the political wilderness, Mr. Tobgay repeated the same words from nearly a decade ago. “Bhutan is open for business,” he posted online this week. This time, the words have an urgency to them, as he takes over the economy at a time of considerable cross-winds in the country, with the post-pandemic impact on tourism and growth, high inflation and high unemployment leading to a high rate of “out-migration” by the youth and skilled professionals, as well as low currency reserves (about $464 million).

‘Egg between rocks’

The announcement last month by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar of plans for the world’s first carbon-negative Smart City called the ‘Gelephu Mindfulness City’ in the south of the country bordering Assam is a gambit to reverse those trends, one that will need both heavy initial infrastructural investment, and intense efforts by the government to shore up international ties. Maintaining ties with Bhutan’s two big neighbours, in a small country that often likens itself to the “egg between two rocks”, remains the most sensitive task, and one which Bhutan’s Kings continue to guide. Mr. Tobgay will be watched most closely for his efforts to resolve boundary issues with China, while keeping ties with India steady. Mr. Tobgay’s constituency, Haa, lies close Bhutan’s borders with China and India at the tri-junction near the Doklam Plateau, the point of the 2017 military stand-off, and his understanding of the sensitivities will be key to progress on the issues.

Amid the uncertainty, it is perhaps some comfort with Mr. Tobgay’s experience at the helm, and his push for the economy that won his party a massive 30 of 47 seats in the election. However, he will have his work cut out for him now in shoring up reserves and encouraging “high-value, low-volume tourism” to the country; managing the economy’s mainstay, big hydropower projects beset by construction delays, extended debt and environmental concerns; as well as attracting trained Bhutanese professionals back home. “We are a small population and if we take our foot off the pedal on the economy, our youth are going to migrate in larger numbers, that would be difficult to reverse,” he told The Hindu in an interview in December, while speaking about the challenges ahead of the new government.

Keeping his foot on the pedal comes naturally in one sense to Mr. Tobgay, who took part in Bhutan’s annual intense “Tour of the Dragon” 268-km biking challenge that crosses mountain passes at 3,500 metres in elevation, a passion he pursues along with his interest in Bhutan’s national sport of archery. The avid athlete will need both a keen eye on the target as well a knack for tricky balancing as he essays his next turn in the Prime Minister’s chair.

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