Amidst the hustle bustle of national politics, far from the maddening crowd engaged in the cacophony of the Rahul vs Modi debate, Sikkim, the erstwhile Chogyal Kingdom and India’s 22nd state, is going to decide the fate of its chief minister Pawan Chamling. The Assembly elections, which are scheduled to be held alongside the approaching Lok Sabha polls, seem to matter more to the people here in Sikkim than others. You can’t blame them, since the state sends only one member to the lower house due to its low population, so people are less excited about it.
Chamling, who has become synonymous with modern Sikkim, has been running the state since 1994, and is poised to break the record of former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu as the longest running head of government of any Indian state. In the last elections in 2009, his party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) won all the 32 seats in the assembly, leaving the opposition seats empty. No one in Sikkim disagrees with the fact that under his leadership the state has witnessed overall development and peace.
“I migrated here from Mumbai after the 1992 riots and never felt the need to leave the place,” says Ameen Akhtar from Motihari, Bihar, who runs a barber’s shop that employs local people in Gangtok. “Things were not that good when I came here in 1994. But after Chamling became CM, he changed the face of the state. It is very developed now, and most importantly, more peaceful than all the places I’ve seen,” he emphasised.
The facts and figures indeed speak for Chamling and his achievement in the state. When Sikkim merged with India in 1975, it was not in a good shape. But today it has the lowest percentage of people below the poverty line (BPL) and its per capita income is much higher than the national average. Chamling has promised to eradicate poverty in the state by 2017. He also claims that in two years he will make Sikkim the first debt-free state in India.
“If you go to a Gangtok taxi stand today, you will find vehicles from remotest villages of Sikkim coming to the city, which could not be imagined some 10-15 years ago,” points out Vinod Rai, a resident of Tadong, near Gangtok. He adds, “This has changed the economy of the state and has made people aspire like never before. And you have to attribute it to the efforts of Chamling with regard to rural development and connectivity.”
Chamling is considered one of the most environment friendly chief ministers of India. Already, the state is set to go organic next year. Plastic is completely banned in Sikkim. His initiatives on ecotourism, attracting ‘clean’ industries, focus on increased agricultural production and rural incomes have earned him applause from many quarters. This year, the SDF’s slogan is sustainability. Sustaining the development and peace efforts by Chamling in the previous years are their goals, party workers say.
The politics of this small hill-state is quite interesting since it became part of India. While popular mandate and a pro-India stand by the then political parties abolished the monarchy and led to the annexation, in the later assembly elections of 1979 and 1985, Nar Bahadur Bhandari of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) rose to power on the plank of a demerging.
Pawan Chamling started his career at 32 years of age and was elected as gram panchayat president in 1982. He subsequently became an MLA on an SSP ticket in the 1985 assembly elections. Thereafter, he also won the 1989 elections when Bhandari made him the industries minister, and following this he became an influential member of his cabinet.
Pawan Chamling parted ways with Bhandari and formed his party the SDF in 1993, which swept the polls in the 1994 assembly elections. It has been in power since. The people of Sikkim remember Chamling’s dramatic act of that time, when he entered the assembly with a candle, supposedly to look for democracy inside. Interestingly, except in the 1994 elections, Chamling has faced virtually no opposition in the house in the later years.
Today, on the eve of the elections, there is a sense of déjà vu in the state. An associate of Chamling and a former senior minister of his cabinet, PS Golay, has formed a new party called the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), and is set to challenge him in the upcoming elections. Though many believe he has long way to go, it is certain the SKM is poised to occupy the space of the opposition in Sikkim this year.
Pema Wangchuk, who works with the local daily Sikkim Now says, “The problem with the SKM is that they don’t offer any alternative policies and are building their party only as an anti-Chamling organisation. This strategy won’t work here as people will continue to believe that the SKM is made by people who fell out of favour with Chamling.”
However a local staff member at the Sikkim Central University thinks otherwise and believes history will be repeated in May. According to him, after being in power for so long, Chamling can’t stand any kind of dissent and this will cost him this year. “Nar Bahadur Bhandari won all the seats in the 1989 elections and absolute power has corrupted him absolutely. Same is the case with Chamling this time,” he says, requesting anonymity.
On the question of whether Chamling is accommodative to dissent, Pema points to the scrapping of 13 hydel projects among the planned 31 projects undertaken by the Chamling administration in the last decade due to strong opposition from the local population. “Possibly, no other Indian state has stopped so many power projects after listening to environmental activists” he says.
Whatever happens in Delhi this coming May, the people of Sikkim are waiting for a bigger fight in their state. After all, the state is so small that even if a single village changes its mind at the last moment, it can change the pattern of election results.