Debating India

VERDICT 2004

Chamling rides on

Suhrid Sankar CHATTOPADHYAY

Wednesday 2 June 2004, by CHATTOPADHYAY*Suhrid Sankar

A pro-incumbency wave ensures a third consecutive term for the Sikkim Democratic Front.

EVEN before Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling left his official residence in Gangtok for his home constituency of Namchi in south Sikkim to cast his vote, he said:"My party (Sikkim Democratic Front) will get a minimum of 26 seats and a maximum of 100 per cent seats." Three days later, when the outcome was known, the SDF had bagged just a seat less than "100 per cent" in the 32-member State Assembly. This is the SDF’s third consecutive term in power.

What eluded a full house for the SDF was the lone Sangha seat reserved for the monks and nuns of Sikkim’s monasteries, which was won by the Congress nominee Tshering Lama. In the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State, the SDF’s Nakul Das Rai scored a convincing victory over the Congress’ Biraj Adhikari, by over 1.2 lakh votes.

"I was confident of a comfortable victory, and the people have restored their faith in my sincerity to work for their betterment," Chamling is reported to have said after the results were declared. Former Congress Chief Minister B.B. Gurung, currently chief political adviser to Chamling, told Frontline: "We expected this result. The message is very clear. The people of Sikkim have voted for good governance. There is a pro-incumbency wave in Sikkim."

The election results have once again proved that in Sikkim politics, where regional parties are dominant, national parties hold no sway. The SDF alone won around 57 per cent of the votes polled. Never in the State has a national party come to power through elections. Though the Congress(I) enjoyed two brief periods of power, it did so by aligning itself with a ruling regional party.

Former Chief Minister and State Congress(I) president Nar Bahadur Bhandari contested from Central Pendham and Gangtok and lost in both. In the previous election in 1999, he had won from Rehnok but lost from his home constituency of Soreng. In 1999, the SDF won 25 seats. The Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP), then led by Bhandari, did manage to win seven seats, but all his legislators defected to the SDF, leaving Bhandari as the sole Opposition member. Subsequently, Bhandari switched over to the Congress(I).

Though the equation in the State Assembly before and after the election remains the same - a single Opposition member belonging to the Congress(I) - the SDF has evidently won over Bhandari’s vote bank. In a State where caste and ethnic identities play a major factor in politics, Bhandari found to his cost that wooing one community will antagonise another. When he got the support of the Sikkimese Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC) to win over Bhutia-Lepcha (B.L.) voters, he evidently antagonised upper-caste Nepalis - the Newars, the Bahuns and the Chhetris (NBC) - who formed a substantial part of his support base. His strategy backfired, as the B.L. community too seemed to have disregarded the SIBLAC’s directive to vote for the Congress. On the other hand, Chamling’s OBC votebank, which constitutes around 70 per cent of the dominant Nepali population, seems to remain loyal to the SDF.

Though the SDF was a part of the National Democratic Allaince, it is not disheartened by the change of guard at the Centre. "We had decided before the elections that whichever party came to power at the Centre, we would give our unqualified support to it," Gurung told Frontline. He dismissed any feeling of discomfort if the SDF allied itself at the national level with the party that is its rival in the State. "The State Congress has been routed. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) should give serious thought to the Sikkim Pradesh Congress’ pathetic state," he said.

With the changing equations at the Centre, the SDF is seriously considering an alliance with the Congress and, if possible, securing a ministerial berth. "This time the regional parties will play a dominant role at the Centre. If an alliance and a chance to participate in the government is offered to us, we will grab it," said Gurung.

But as of now, what is immediate on the agenda of the SDF is to persuade the Central government to effect an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1980, for reservation of seats for the Limboo and Tamang communities, which have recently been given tribal status. The two tribes account for about 15 per cent of the State’s population.

Another issue that the State government will take up with the Centre is the implementation of direct income tax.

On the reopening of the Nathula Pass, the State government, which was proactive on the issue, plans to continue its efforts to expedite the process. A symbolic opening of the pass will take place on July 17. The SIBLAC, even when it was on the side of the SDF, had all along opposed the opening of the pass, its argument being that it would lead to the displacement of those living there and the endangering of livelihoods.

The SDF, however, believes that the opening of the pass will not only bring about economic benefits for the State, but provide additional employment for people living on the Nathula route.

With the SDF denying the ticket to four Ministers, the State Cabinet can expect to have a few new faces. Chamling plans to appoint a 12-member Cabinet, which will be sworn in before May 22.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Pic : SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH ; Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

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