Testing ground

Published : May 08, 2009 00:00 IST

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a CPI(M) election rally in Siliguri on March 28.-DIPTENDU DUTTA\AFP Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a CPI(M) election rally in Siliguri on March 28.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a CPI(M) election rally in Siliguri on March 28.-DIPTENDU DUTTA\AFP Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a CPI(M) election rally in Siliguri on March 28.

WEST BENGAL Tough fight By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata

THE three-phase Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, to be held on April 30, May 7 and May 13, have taken on the appearance of a dress rehearsal for the 2011 Assembly elections, for local and regional issues have largely eclipsed national issues. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front swept the 2004 elections by winning 35 of the 42 parliamentary seats, while the Trinamool Congress and the Congress had to be satisfied with one and six seats respectively.

But this time round, the Congress-Trinamool combine, as CPI(M) patriarch and former Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu himself has admitted, will make things tough for the Left. At a meet-the-press event in Kolkata on April 14, CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said: My partys assessment is that we will have a tough battle in West Bengal and one of the main factors is the Congress-Trinamool alliance. But we have faced such united opposition in the past and our party has taken that into account. He said he expected the party to win a majority of the seats.

After much wrangling over seats, the Congress and the Trinamool reached an understanding on March 12 to face the polls together, with the Trinamool fielding 27 candidates and the Congress 14. One seat has been set aside for the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), an ally of the Trinamool.

The alliance did not come about easily as old wounds, inflicted by the two foes-turned-friends on each other, took time to heal despite desperate efforts by the top leaders on both sides. The animosity between the two parities was such that until recently Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee referred to the West Bengal Congress unit as the B team of the CPI(M). Even on the issue of land acquisition for industrial purposes the bedrock of Mamatas latest political strategy the two parties do not see eye to eye. Moreover, a sizable section of Congress workers are disgruntled that the seats they consider winnable have been conceded to the Trinamool, reducing the party to a junior partner in the alliance.

Dismissing the electoral pact of the two opposition parties, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said, Such unprincipled alliances against the Left have taken place before also. But ultimately, the mandate of the people has always prevailed.

The Left Front is contesting all the 42 seats, with 18 new faces and two women in the fray. The CPI(M) has fielded its candidates in 32 seats, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in four and the All India Forward Bloc and the Communist Party of India (CPI) in three each.

It is significant that Mamata kick-started her campaign not from her Kolkata South constituency but from Nandigram in East Medinipur district.

Nandigram saw one of the bloodiest turf wars in the States recent history, and it was initiated by the Trinamool in 2007 over rumours of land acquisition for a proposed chemical hub. The Trinamools showing in the previous parliamentary elections was disastrous: only Mamata got elected. This was followed by a dismal performance in the Assembly elections in 2006, with the party winning only 29 of the 294 seats as against 60 in 2001.

The Nandigram agitation, during which 14 villagers were killed in police firing on March 14, 2007, became the turning point in Mamatas political career. She said: It is Nandigram that has opened the door for change in West Bengal and it will continue to do so. She has promised to carry an urn containing what she calls the holy earth of Nandigram across the State during her poll campaign.

Mamatas anti-industry stand probably stems from the belief that the rural masses will perceive her as a leader who has come to protect them from the perils of land acquisition, even if it means losing some base among the urban middle class. In 2008, her persistent agitation succeeded in driving out the prestigious Nano car project of Tata Motors from Singur in Hooghly district a project that was expected to turn around the industry-starved economy of West Bengal. It ultimately went to Gujarat.

Mamatas confidence got a further boost from the results of the panchayat elections in 2008, when spontaneous informal local alliances between the Congress and the Trinamool managed to dent the Lefts rural vote bank significantly in some districts. The Trinamool also won convincingly in both Nandigram and Singur, and in January 2009, it won the Nandigram Assembly seat in a byelection.

Despite the setback they suffered in the elections to the local bodies, the Left parties hold over rural Bengal cannot be underestimated. The Trinamools campaign against the CPI(M)s misrule and its pro-farmer, anti-land acquisition rhetoric, as embodied in the slogan Ma, Mati, Manush (mother, land, man), are not likely to cut ice everywhere. Ratan Rai, a farmer of Bankura districts Bhairavpur village, which falls in the Bishnupur constituency, told Frontline: I dont want to buy a plough for my children. I have hopes for a better future for them and that can only come through industries.

Basudev Ray, another farmer from the same village, said: We will vote for the third alternative, as both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are the same in their anti-farmer policies, and on top of that, the BJP has been trying to divide the country on religious grounds. Interestingly, Bhairavpur has an all-Hindu population, and so the views expressed by the farmers here speak of the fine balance the CPI(M) has struck between local and national issues in its campaigns there.

Shiuli Saha is the Trinamools candidate for the Bishnupur seat. Her claim to fame: she hails from Nandigram.

The anti-incumbency wave that the opposition parties are banking upon may not be as widespread as they would like it to be. Kanai Bagdi, a landless labourer of Harialgara village in the Bankura constituency, said, The CPI(M) is always there for our needs blankets in winter, assistance when there is no work. I dont care who comes at the Centre as long as the CPI(M) is here. In fact, a local Congress leader in Jalpaiguri in north Bengal admitted: The difference between the Congress and the CPI(M) here is that while the CPI(M) works throughout the year, the Congress sleeps except during election time.

According to an informed CPI(M) source, voters in the 18-35 age group may vote decisively for the Left. They constitute about 31 per cent of the electorate [of over 5.2 crore]. They want employment and the opposition has totally overlooked their concerns. All things considered, the worst result for the Left, he said, could be 28 seats, seven less than its 2004 tally.

If the opposition is banking on the reported alienation of the minority community from the Left, it may be proved wrong, as time and again the minority voter has shown that he is capable of voting on ideological and political lines rather than on communal ones.

In the first phase of the elections for 14 seats, four regions, each having witnessed a secessionist movement of varying degree, will go to the polls.

The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) has been demanding a separate Gorkhaland comprising not only the Darjeeling hills but also parts of the contiguous areas in the Terai and the Dooars in the plains. In its attempt to enlist the support of a national party, the GJM has fielded BJP stalwart and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling. With the GJM backing it, the BJP, which hardly has any presence in the State, is confident of winning the seat. Karat said the BJPs decision was opportunistic and unprincipled and something they will regret. The voters in the plains may turn to the CPI(M) to prevent a division of the State.

The Kamtapur and the Greater Coochbehar movements, which began mainly as a result of widespread unemployment and underdevelopment, are not as serious as the Gorkhaland movement.

The Maoist movement in the tribal belts is, however, more serious although localised in nature. In Lalgarh in West Medinipur district, the Maoist-backed Peoples Committee against Police Atrocity (PCPA) has been trying to create a liberated zone on the lines of Nandigram by denying entry to the police. Last November an attempt was made on the life of the Chief Minister at Salboni in the district. The PCPA even sought to cut off the neighbouring districts of Bankura and Purulia from the rest of the State. The Chief Electoral Officer of the State, Debasish Sen, has been holding talks with the PCPA chief, Chhatradhar Mahato, in Kolkata to make the latter see reason and allow the police to be present on polling day. Mahato insists that civil society and leading intellectuals can substitute the police in overseeing the conduct of the elections.

The Aditya faction of the Jharkhand Party, which supports the Lalgarh movement, has demanded that the tribal belts of Bankura, Purulia and West Medinipur districts be merged with Jharkhand.

The Trinamools association with the Maoists, first in Nandigram and then in Lalgarh, where Mamata shared the dais with Mahato, will not go down well with a large section of the voters in the region, who, fearing another partition of Bengal, may just vote against her.

Amiya Patra, CPI(M) district secretary of Bankura, told Frontline that 80 per cent of the people who voted against us in the panchayat polls have returned to our fold after the oppositions support to the secessionist movement in Lalgarh.

NORTH-EASTERN STATES Alliances on test By Sushanta Talukdar in Guwahati

ASSAM: Going by the campaign issues, electioneering for the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam this time is not much different from that in 2004. Infiltration, insurgency, law and order, ethnic identity and development are the dominant electoral issues this time too. A total of 158 candidates are in the fray for the elections scheduled for April 16 and 23.

In 2004, the results favoured the Congress. It won nine seats, while the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the BJP won two each. One seat went to the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU)-backed independent candidate, who later joined the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), a partner in the ruling coalition. The Congress secured 35.07 per cent of the votes, the BJP 22.94 per cent and the AGP 19.25 per cent.

This round of elections will provide the ground to test whether the new political alignments in the State will work. The AGP and the BJP struck a seat-sharing deal in order to prevent a split in their votes. This, they hope, will ensure the victory of their common candidates. With an eye on the 2011 Assembly polls, the BJP has made a calculated bid to expand its base in the State, particularly in the Brahmaputra valley, by persuading the regional party to concede eight seats, of which five are from the valley. The alliance, however, suffered a jolt when the nomination of the BJP candidate for the Dhubri constituency, Nilimoy Pradhani, was rejected on the grounds that he had not filled up the mandatory A and B forms along with his nomination papers.

However, a number of grassroots-level leaders and workers of the AGP are wary of this tie-up. They fear that a substantial portion of their traditional support base may permanently shift to the BJP and this will weaken the party ahead of the Assembly polls. Owing to such reservations among grassroots workers, the transfer of votes between the two parties may not take place on expected lines.

There was also some confusion among the rank and file of the two parties regarding the actual nature of the alliance. AGP chief Chandra Mohan Patowary had to issue a clarification that the tie-up was limited to seat-sharing and that his party had not joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as was claimed by some senior BJP leaders. However, he maintained that the BJP would be the senior partner in the Lok Sabha elections and that the roles would be reversed in the Assembly polls. The confusion at the grassroots was reflected in the joint rallies attended by the alliances star campaigners, the BJPs prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The rallies failed to attract an equal number of supporters of the two parties. The third force represented by the CPI(M), the CPI, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) and the Bodoland Peoples Progressive Front (BPPF) had evoked considerable response among those voters who were disenchanted with the ruling Congress-BPF coalition and who were not willing to go along with the AGP-BJP combine. However, the unilateral declaration of candidatures by the AUDF before the finalisation of the seat-sharing deal hampered the prospects of the third front in a number of seats. The CPI(M) and the AUDF failed to reach a seat-sharing agreement.

AUDF president and perfume mogul Badruddin Ajmal unilaterally declared his candidature from Silchar in the Barak valley where the CPI(M) has a strong support base. The AUDF also put up a candidate for the Barpeta seat, which was won twice by the CPI(M); for Tezpur, the two parties fielded their own candidates. In Guwahati, too, despite a formal agreement to leave the seat to the NCP, the AUDF hurriedly decided to put up its own candidate before the close of nominations.

However, despite the internal contradictions and the confusion over seat-sharing, the emergence of the third force has made the contests triangular and the mandate unpredictable.

The decision of the BPPF to leave the BJP-AGP bandwagon and join the third force came as a boost to the efforts of the Left parties to unite the non-Congress, non-BJP parties on a common platform. This is likely to influence the poll outcome in the Bodo-dominated areas of lower and central Assam. It has brightened the poll prospects of the BPPF candidate for the Kokrajhar constituency, Urkhao Gwra Brahma. Brahma, who led the revived Bodo statehood movement as the president of the influential ABSU, is putting up a tough fight against the Congress-BPF candidate and sitting BPF MP Sansuma Khunggur Bwismuthiary, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term. Bwismuthiary was credited with the highest victory margin in the State 4,84,129 votes in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

If the 2004 Lok Sabha election helped Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to consolidate his position within the party and retain the hot seat in Dispur for a second consecutive term in the 2006 Assembly elections, the 2009 elections will be a test for the popularity and performance of his government. The ruling party campaigned on the plank of development.

However, Gogoi faces an uphill task because of the AUDF factor. The AUDF made its debut in State politics in 2006 following the scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act by the Supreme Court. It caused an erosion of the Congress Muslim votes in the 2006 Assembly elections, and the AUDF won as many as 10 seats in the 126-member Assembly and prevented the Congress from gaining a majority.

Badruddin Ajmals candidature will make the contest for Silchar tough for Congress heavyweight and Union Minister for Heavy Industries Sontosh Mohan Dev. The Congress has put up candidates for 13 seats, leaving the Kokrajhar (Scheduled Tribe) seat to its ally, the BPF. However, the BPF is engaged in a friendly contest with its coalition partner in Mangaldoi.

To counter the AGP-BJP combines high-profile campaign involving leaders such as Advani, the Congress brought party president Sonia Gandhi and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

The campaign of the Left parties and their allies focussed on the adverse impact of the economic policies of the Congress-led Union government, while the Congress and the AGP-BJP combine were engaged in mudslinging. The Congress accused the AGP-BJP combine of reaching a tacit understanding with the AUDF.

There has been a spurt in extremist violence in the run-up to the elections. A series of fatal bomb blasts rocked Guwahati and a few other places. Attacks on security forces and railway property by the militant outfits Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel Gorlossa faction) in North Cachar Hills district and by the Karbi Longri and N.C. Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF) in Karbi Anglong district were pointers to a violent round of elections in the Autonomous District (S.T.) constituency. The run-up to the polls also witnessed violent attacks between the supporters of two rival candidates in Kokrajhar constituency. The incidents provided the opposition parties ample opportunities to attack the State government over the deteriorating law and order situation.

The AGP and the BJP made the infiltration from across the porous India-Bangladesh border a major election issue. They pointed out that the Congress had not made any mention of the issue, which posed a great danger to Assam, in its national manifesto. The Congress and the third force countered this by alleging that the AGP, which was in power for two terms in the State, and the BJP, which headed an earlier government at the Centre, did nothing to detect and deport foreigners and seal the border.

During the days of single-party rule at the Centre, parliamentary elections in the smaller north-eastern States of Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya did not interest the mainstream parties much; the small number of seats from these States was not so important for them to reach the magic number required to form the government. But in todays era of coalition politics, when every single seat matters, the six States have become crucial in the final power game.

Of these States, which go to the polls on April 16 and 23, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur have two seats each, while Nagaland and Mizoram have one each. Barring Tripura where the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front campaigned for an alternative government of left, democratic and secular parties at the Centre, electioneering in the other five States centred around unresolved and sensitive local political issues.

MANIPUR: The States territorial integrity has topped the campaign issues. All India Congress Committee general secretary Rahul Gandhi promised, at an election rally in Churachandpur, that the Congress would not compromise on the issue of protecting Manipurs territorial integrity. However, the party had stated in its election manifesto that it supported the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The contest for the Inner Manipur constituency was multi-cornered. The Congress nominated its sitting MP Thockchom Meinya, while the Manipur Peoples Party (MPP) fielded former Union Minister Thounaojam Chaoba Singh. Former Manipur Chief Minister Wahengbam Nipamacha Singh and Dr. Moirangthem Nara are the candidates for the BJP and the CPI respectively.

Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and other Congress leaders are confident that Meinya will retain the seat as 19 of the 32 Assembly segments in this Lok Sabha constituency have Congress representatives.

The sitting MP of the Outer Manipur constituency, Mani Charenamei, is contesting as the candidate of a new political platform, the Peoples Democratic Alliance (PDA), this time. The PDA was floated by the Naga legislators of Manipur. He is locked in a four-cornered contest with D. Loli Adanee of the BJP, L.B. Sona of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Thangso Baite of the Congress.

NAGALAND: In Nagaland, the Naga political problem and the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of certain neighbouring States to create Greater Nagaland dominated the campaign for the Nagaland parliamentary seat and also the byelections to four Assembly seats.

The ruling Nagaland Peoples Front (NPF)-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) tried to woo voters by projecting the Congress dilemma on the issue. The Congress, on its part, told voters that it was during Congress rule that the Nagaland Assembly had twice passed unanimous resolutions supporting the integration of Naga areas. The party said it would continue to work for an acceptable and honourable solution to the Naga political problem.

Altogether three candidates are in the fray in Nagaland retired bureaucrat C.M. Chang of the NPF, Congress veteran and former parliamentarian K. Asungba Sangtam, and All India Trinamool Congress candidate Dr. Rialthung Odyuo. In 2004, the seat went to the DAN.

TRIPURA: That the ruling CPI(M) will retain the two Lok Sabha seats in Tripura is a foregone conclusion. State Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, at his election rallies, urged voters to ensure the victory of two sitting MPs Khagen Das and Bajuban Riyan with record margins. Sarkar and other leaders of the ruling Left Front told voters in the State that because of the strong presence of Left parties in the outgoing 14th Lok Sabha, many anti-people policies of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre could be resisted. They appealed to the voters to respond positively to the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP government at the Centre by the Third Front.

MEGHALAYA: In the Tura constituency of Meghalaya, which is under Presidents Rule, sitting MP Agatha K. Sangma of the NCP, the daughter of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A. Sangma, was seen putting maximum efforts to continue the Sangma legacy. She is pitted against former Deputy Chief Minister Deborah Marak of the Congress. Agatha Sangma, 28, became the youngest member in the 14th Lok Sabha when she made her political debut by winning the May 2008 byelection from the constituency after it was vacated by her father. Sangma, who had won the seat nine times, decided to return to State politics last year.

For the Shillong constituency, Vincent H. Pala of the Congress was locked in a three-cornered contest with United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate John Flimore Kharsiing and Hill State Peoples Democratic Party (HSPDP) candidate P.B. Basaiawmoit. Tribal Welfare Minister in the Manmohan Singh government Paty Ripple Kyndiah won the seat on the Congress ticket in 2004.

At her election rally in Shillong amidst a bandh call by the militant outfit Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), Sonia Gandhi urged Meghalaya voters to reject smaller parties. Smaller parties have narrow and divisive agendas. They shift loyalties. They have no regard for the overall development of Meghalaya and the nation as a whole, she said. The UDP made the imposition of Presidents Rule the main poll plank to counter the Congress campaign; it told voters that the Congress did not want regional parties to rule the State.

ARUNACHAL PRADESH: In Arunachal Pradesh, where inaccessibility poses tough challenges for politicians as well as polling teams in reaching out to voters, the two sitting BJP MPs, Khiren Rijuju from Arunachal West and Tapir Gao from Arunachal East, face tough opponents. Rijuju is locked in a direct contest with Takam Sanjoy of the Congress, a former president of the influential All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU) and a former Education Minister.

MIZORAM: After scripting history in the recent Assembly polls in Mizoram by securing a four-fifths majority, the Congress is confident of winning the lone Lok Sabha seat from the State with a huge margin. It has fielded C.L. Ruala, while the opposition Mizo National Front (MNF) and Mizoram Peoples Conference (MPC) have backed an independent candidate, Dr. H. Lallungmuana, since the sitting MP, Vanlalzawma of the MNF, decided not to contest.

SIKKIM Smooth sailing By Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Gangtok

AS the tiny Himalayan State of Sikkim prepares for simultaneous elections to the Assembly and Lok Sabha on April 30, the advantage clearly lies with the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). As in 2004, its main challenger will be the Congress. The SDF swept the polls in the last elections by winning 31 of the 32 Assembly seats. The Congress won the lone Sangha seat reserved for the monks and nuns of Sikkims monasteries.

A unique feature of Sikkims politics is that it is dominated by individual leaders rather than political parties. The two main contenders for power since 1994 have been the present Chief Minister and president of the SDF Pawan Chamling and former Chief Minister and Sikkim Pradesh Congress Committee president Nar Bahadur Bhandari.

Chamling contests from the Poklok-Kamrang and Namchi-Singhithang Assembly constituencies in South Sikkim, while Bhandari contests from Khamdong-Singtan in East Sikkim and Chakung-Soreng in West Sikkim.

However, in spite of the impressive track record of development work undertaken by the SDF government over the past 15 years, traces of anti-incumbency feelings are surfacing although they may not be strong enough to topple the government.

Fifteen years is a long time. Even the Bhandari government changed after 15 years, Swapan Lepcha, a tour operator on the outskirts of Gangtok, told Frontline. He was not the only one to voice such an opinion, but this was no reflection on Chamlings performance. Chamling has done a lot for the State beautified Gangtok, made Sikkim a tourist hub, and so on but some of his Ministers have not been performing well, and that might affect the SDFs results, a shopkeeper in Gangtok told Frontline.

Chamling has dropped 20 sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly, including 10 Ministers in his 12-member Cabinet, in order to induct new faces and also stem any anti-incumbency factor. Although the reason he gave for resting them was that they prepare themselves to provide an alternative to him, Chamlings political adviser B.B. Gooroong said the Chief Minister wanted a thorough change as per the wishes of the people, and this way the party will also be able to tackle anti-incumbency feelings. Chamlings decision has not caused dissidence in the ranks. In fact, the MLAs who were dropped from the list passed a resolution expressing their support to the Chief Ministers decision.

Even the sitting Member of Parliament, Nakul Das Rai, for the lone Sikkim Lok Sabha seat had to make way for the younger Prem Das Rai. In the last election, Nakul Das Rai won by a margin of over 1.2 lakh votes. The SDF is expected to win the seat again, but political observers feel the Congress K.N. Upreti, who was a Minister in the Bhandari government, will make the contest a tough one. Upreti is a well-known and respected leader, who many feel is just in the wrong party. Rai, on the other hand is young and well educated, but he is an absolute newcomer in politics. Most people dont even know about him, a political source in Sikkim said. As before, Sikkim will be joining any alliance that forms the government at the Centre. We are dependent on the Centre for our development and for that purpose we always join the alliance in power, Gooroong said.

The opposition parties have realised that they can take on the SDF only if they put up a united front. The first initiative in this regard was taken by the State unit of the CPI(M), which tried to set up a United Democratic Front comprising the Congress, the BJP, the Sikkim Gorkha Prajatantrik Party and the Sikkim Himali Rajya Parishad (SHRP). However, this alliance fell through as the central leadership of the national parties, with the exception of the BJP, rejected the proposal. Had this alliance actually taken place it would have worried us, but it is most unlikely that it would have been strong enough to defeat us, a source in the SDF told Frontline.

The Congress tried to have an alliance with the SHRP, arguably the strongest among the regional opposition parties, but the proposal foundered on the issue of seat sharing. The only alliance that seems to have stuck is the one between the Sikkim National Peoples Party and the Sikkim Janekta, called the United Sikkimese Alliance. However, these two parties are not big players in the States politics. They have invited other parties to join them, but as of April 14 no party has shown any interest.

The disadvantage of the opposition parties is that they are mostly Gangtok-based, have hardly any grassroots support, and generally surface only during election time. The SDF is a well-organised, cadre-based party, which keeps in touch with the masses throughout the year. Of the three lakh voters in Sikkim, 70 per cent belong to rural areas, and they are the SDFs backbone.

The Sikkimese population is divided into three ethnic groups the Nepalis (70 per cent), the Bhutias and the Lepchas (around 20 per cent), and others, mostly traders and professionals. More than 70 per cent of the Nepalis belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), and their unwavering loyalty lies with Chamling, who himself belongs to an OBC community. The upper-class Nepalis constitute Bhandaris vote bank. In the 2004 elections, the SDF got around 76 per cent of the total votes, while the Congress could manage only 20 per cent, and that too mainly owing to Bhandaris defection to the party. In 1999, the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP), which was then led by Bhandari, won seven seats in the Assembly.

In 2003, the Limboo and Tamang communities, which constitute over 10 per cent of the Nepali community and play a decisive role in five Assembly seats, were included in the list of Scheduled Tribes. Since then the SDF government has canvassed in vain for reservation of seats for these two communities. The Congress hopes to take advantage of the situation by promising to reserve seats for the two communities. The Limboo and Tamang communities have been totally deprived of their political rights. The Chamling government has badly let them down, Bhandari told Frontline. He feels that it would be to the benefit of the people of Sikkim if a national party rather than a regional one is at the helm of affairs. But traditionally that has not been the way in Sikkim politics.

The main thrust of the SDFs campaign has been development. We have promised to banish poverty in all its manifestations from Sikkim by 2015 and make the people of the State completely self-reliant, Gooroong said. Around 70 per cent of the State budget is earmarked for rural development. The net State domestic product rose from Rs.496 crore in 1995 to Rs.1,730 crore in 2007. The tourism industry has thrived, generating substantial revenue and employment.

The oppositions campaign mostly centres around corruption charges against the government, populist promises, and the decision of the Central government to exempt all incomes of Sikkim Subject Certificate cardholders from the purview of direct taxes.

The other issue that will be a key factor in the elections is the proposed hydel power projects in the Dzongu region of North Sikkim. These projects are expected to generate 5,000 MW of power by 2015.

The region falls under the protected area of the Lepcha community, who fear demographic changes if the projects are allowed to come up. For over a year now, the people of the region have been staging relay hunger-strikes against the project. These developments will certainly have their impact on the results in three Assembly seats that fall in North Sikkim. The Congress has promised to scuttle the project if elected to power.

The anti-incumbency factor that the Congress is pinning its hopes on could cost the SDF a few seats but is not strong enough to defeat the party. The SDFs inherent strengths disciplined workers, organisational excellence and a well-oiled party machinery along with an impressive performance record will most likely see it through for a fourth term in power.

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