by Tim Sullivan
Dharamshala: 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.
But with his well-tailored suits and carefully practiced soundbites, 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 exile 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 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 symbolises 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 websites 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 nearly 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 empathise 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 American 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," said Shakya. "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.
His critics, though, say his victory was partially rooted in the seamier side of American political culture. Sangay's focus on his working-class roots was seen by some in the community as a populist attack message, designed to divide Tibetans along ancient class lines.
Certainly, it set Sangay apart from his main rival, Tenzin Tethong, a member of an old aristocratic family.
While the exiled nobility lost much of its power long ago, many poorer exiles believe they still wield immense influence in Dharamshala.
"A few people belonging to high-status families control everything," said Yangdon Tsekyi, 25, who works in a Dharamshala coffee shop, a comment echoed by many Sangay voters. "If you have the right family name, you can be successful here ... I'm happy Lobsang Sangay is from a normal family."
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Sangay insists he wasn't trying to be divisive, and points out that his wife comes from an aristocratic family. His supporters say his campaign simply reflected modern politics.
"Whether you call it divisive, or whatever, doesn't matter. I think he wanted to win the election and wanted to connect with the masses," said Aukatsang, the parliament member.
Six months after his swearing-in, Sangay has become skilled in political banality, avoiding sensitive topics during an hour-long interview by piling platitudes one upon the other. If pressed, he would sidestep by quoting the Dalai Lama.
He is eloquent, though, when the topic turns to China, battering Beijing's rule with passion and knowledge.
"What we fear is unfolding," he said of Beijing's efforts to seal off Tibetan regions amid the continuing wave of self-immolations: "Tragedy."
Years of crackdowns, he argues, have given Tibetans no other way to vent their frustration.
"You can't have hunger strikes, you can't have demonstrations, you can't write petitions ... Given such repressive policies and actions, Tibetans are pushed to the brink of desperation."
This is the real power of the exile government. Along with overseeing refugee schools and finding jobs for young people, the Dharamshala government is a pulpit to voice the Tibetan quest for autonomy.
Earlier exile leaders were practically invisible, eclipsed by the Dalai Lama's fame. Giving up his political role was supposed to make it easier for Beijing to negotiate with the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, not the head of a government China reviles as illegitimate. He also fears a leadership vacuum after he dies, when the Chinese government and senior Tibetan lamas will almost certainly name rival reincarnated successors.
But Sangay's political instincts, and the new prominence of the prime minister role, have helped make him a global darling. The international media cover his speeches, and foreign governments bestow honors on him.
He even gets attacked by Beijing: "That government-in-exile of his, no matter who leads (it), it's all just a separatist political clique that betrays the motherland," a senior Chinese official for Tibet said after Sangay offered to negotiate with China.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking independence, though he and Sangay both insist they only want greater autonomy for the region.
Sangay says much of his job now is finding a middle ground between a deeply conservative culture and the modern world.
"In many ways I'm trying to balance between continuity and change," Sangay said, when asked if he ever fears he has become too Westernised. "I have to be very much Tibetan but very much modern as well."
He is also simply getting accustomed to the new job.
"I am an ordinary guy who was given this extraordinary responsibility," he said.
And as with an experienced American politician, it was impossible to know if the modesty was heartfelt — or utterly insincere.