THIMPHU, Bhutan » "I think I can take President Obama one on one in basketball," Bhutan’s newly elected prime minister said recently in an interview. "I’ve got some special moves."
The prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, is 4 inches shorter than Barack Obama, so beating the U.S. president in hoops might be a stretch. But 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 42 miles. In searing pain, he got up and rode the rest of the race — 124 more miles.
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 in 2012 and threats from India just before the vote to withdraw vital financial support. But 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 5. 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 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, 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.
"The bottom line is that we have to work harder," Tobgay said. "We need to grow our own food, build our own homes."
He lamented that so many of Bhutan’s youth were voluntarily unemployed. "If we can restructure the construction sector to make it more attractive, that should provide a lot of jobs."
The country’s major industries are hydroelectric power, which it exports to India, and tourism. While most of the population is still involved in subsistence farming, a growing number of people are abandoning their traditional single-family mud-and-wood homes in isolated villages and moving to the country’s towns and cities.
"Who wants to do subsistence farming and get up at 4 in the morning and carry water if you don’t have to?" asked Paljor Dorji, a member of the royal family and a longtime close adviser to the former king. "Once you educate the people, nobody is going to live the same miserable life their parents did."
Between 2005 and 2012, more than 1,300 apartment buildings were built in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and they now house nearly two-thirds of the city’s 116,000 residents.
Unlike most cities in South Asia, Thimphu is being developed within strict guidelines, which include adequate roads, sewers and schools. The city requires every building to incorporate elements from traditional Bhutanese architecture like pitched roofs, distinctive windows and upper-story projections, making the town feel like a downscale Vail, Colo.
Thimphu is a pleasant walking city, with none of the chaotic warrens present in many Indian cities. Its people are cheerful, its merchants show none of the pushiness common in South Asia, and even its stray dogs seem benign. There are no slums.
Tobgay has eliminated some of the restrictive customs enforced by the previous government, including occasional bans on vehicular traffic and a dress code requiring men to wear ghos, a dresslike traditional garment. He acknowledged that preserving the country’s traditional culture would be challenging in an era of rapid urbanization.
Bhutan’s royal family is revered, and criticism of royalty remains unthinkable. But there is a lively national news media, and the country’s many and growing democratic and educational institutions have made Bhutan the darling of development and nongovernmental funding organizations.
"Bhutan is an exceptional success story," said Sekhar Bonu of the Asian Development Bank. "It’s a ray of hope in South Asia, and it sets a new benchmark when we talk to other countries."
Tobgay said one of his top priorities was to crack down on growing political corruption. The previous government was considering measures that would have weakened the country’s anti-corruption agency, but Tobgay, who has shunned his predecessor’s limousine and luxury accommodations, said that he planned to strengthen it.
"If corruption creeps in and takes root, we have had it," Tobgay said. "We need to ensure that rule of law prevails."
He plans to host a weekly call-in radio program, hold monthly news conferences and have public office hours when anyone can come and complain. He has a blog and a Twitter account and is active on Facebook.
"Friend me," he said with a mischievous smile.
Thinley, the previous prime minister, lobbied for a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, opened new embassies and held discussions with China, efforts that alarmed India. Tobgay has promised to end much of that international outreach.
"Opening embassies is expensive," he said. "We have to understand how poor we are."
He expressed a clear preference for India, which gives Bhutan considerable financial assistance, over China.
"The friendship between India and Bhutan transcends party politics and personalities," he said with some warmth. When asked about the country’s other neighbor, his face fell. "We engage with China. That is a reality."
And while he intends to spend little time on international affairs, he said he would make an exception to play basketball with Obama.
"I need to practice my 3-pointers, sharpen my elbows and strengthen my shoulders," he said with a clear understanding of foreign diplomacy. "You’re a superpower, so my only chance is going one on one."