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Sikkim : Progress ensures mass appeal

Friday, 11 April 2014 - 6:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

The general elections assume significance in Sikkim not because the outcome will have any impact on the national arena; the lone member that the state sends to Parliament is unlikely to influence the government formation at the Centre as does Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. However, the significance is that Sikkim is simultaneously going for assembly elections. In the event that Pawan Kumar Chamling wins the assembly polls it will be his fifth consecutive term as Chief Minister. A similar feat was achieved by Communist icon Jyoti Basu (Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000). Leaders like Basu and Chamling, Sikkim's Chief Minister since 1994, are rare phenomena in these times of severe anti-incumbent sentiments among voters.

This is the ninth elections since Sikkim's merger with the Indian Union in 1975. With a total population of 6.9 lakhs, Sikkim has an electorate of just 3.69 lakh voters, spread across 32 assembly constituencies over four districts. Among them are constituencies with as few as 6,000 voters while the largest have 15,000 voters. In the social sense, Sikkim has three main ethnic groups: the Lepchas, Bhutias and the Nepalese. Being minority communities, the Lepchas and Bhutias have reservation in the legislature; out of 32 seats, 12 are reserved for them. Two seats are reserved for Scheduled Caste communities, one seat for the Lamas from the monasteries, and the remaining 17 seats come under general category. The Nepalese, the majority community in Sikkim, enjoyed 50 per cent reservation in the legislature till 1978. This is an area of contention now.

In the Seventies and early-Eighties, the issue that dominated Sikkim politics was the merger with India. While the Sikkim National Congress, which had campaigned for the merger, won a landslide victory (31 out of 32 seats) in 1975, the tide soon turned in favour of Chamling's predecessor, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who formed the government in 1979. Bhandari's anti-merger propaganda had landed him in the Berhampur jail in Odisha during the Emergency. The inexperience and consequent administrative chaos of the first government and the general perception of Bhandari being victimised helped his victory in 1979.

The ethnic politics of Sikkim landed the successive Bhandari governments in trouble more than once. Before he could complete his second term, his government was brought down by a no-confidence motion on the issue of income tax exemption to the Bhutia-Lepcha communities. The issue of including a few more castes in the list of OBC category from Sikkim resulted in another fissure in 1992. The state entered a phase of protracted political chaos. Pawan Kumar Chamling, a contractor from South Sikkim, and a former minister, used the OBC issue to split Bhandari's Sikkim Sangram Parishad, after being expelled from it.

In 1994, Chamling founded the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). In the 1994 elections, the SDF won 19 out of 32 seats and formed the government. Chamling's approach to governance — radically different from Bhandari — rewrote the political equations that governed Sikkim politics. Bhandari could never shed his aristocratic pretensions and hence could not connect to the masses. On the other hand, Chamling's down-to-earth approach and his skill in the art of entertaining the masses with his oratory skills (his public meetings stretch up to four hours and he invariably enters into a dialogue with his audience) and accessibility has helped him stay connected. Despite the charges of corruption and nepotism levelled against him by opponents, Chamling's popularity only increased over each term. In the 1999 elections, his party won 24 out of 32 seats; in 2004 the SDF swept 31 out of 32 seats; and in the 2009 elections, SDF swept all the 32 seats.

It is a fact that with Chamling coming to power there is governance in the state. Visible governance! The state's shift to organic farming, the considerable improvements in the primary education sector, and the focus on the tourism industry have intensified the SDF's mass appeal. The SDF's 72-page manifesto for the 2014 polls details achievements in energy and power, organic farming, education, IT and tourism development, even quoting travel guide Lonely Planet to substantiate its claims! Another Chamling claim to good governance has been the 50 per cent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions which was implemented in the 2012 panchayat elections.

The main opposition party, the one-year-old Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) is helmed by PS Golay — once a Chamling confidante and a three-term minister in past SDF governments. He turned a dissident after being denied a ministerial berth in the 2009 government on the pretext of providing space for 'new faces'. Rather than ideological rift, Golay's personal grudge with Chamling gave birth to the SKM. Among the first successes for the new party was the entry of prominent social and environmental activist Dawa Lepcha, who protested against the six proposed hydel power projects in the Dzongu area of North Sikkim, known as Lepcha Reserve. Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, believe and treat this area with sanctity and worried about the adverse environmental effects of these projects. Following large-scale protests led by Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Lepcha who went on hunger strike, the government cancelled five of the six projects. The support of the social forum, Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), and Dawa's candidature from Dzongu have given the SKM a much-needed toehold in North Sikkim.

However, the breakout of election-related violence in west Sikkim and the death of two SDF activists may damage the SKM's prospects. Suddenly, a people without an effective opposition party have begun to view the new party with scepticism. By condemning political violence strongly and putting up posters of its martyrs all over, the SDF is turning the deaths to its advantage. Much like the Aam Aadmi Party's impact, the questions abuzz in Sikkim are whether a 20-day campaign by a one-year-old party can trump a party ruling for 20 years and if Chamling can record a fifth term in the Chief Minister's office.

The authors are research scholars at the Sikkim Central University.

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