Dual victory for SDF

Print edition : October 23, 1999

THE Sikkim Demo-cratic Front (SDF) was swept back to power in the Himalayan State with a two-thirds majority in the 32-member Assembly. The SDF also won the lone parliamentary seat.

The SDF's dual victory not only shattered the hopes of Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) chief Nar Bahadur Bhandari to regain power but also reaffirmed the domination of regional forces over a national party, the Congress(I). The Congress(I), which was respo nsible for the State's merger with the Indian Union 24 years ago, has never been elected to power in the State. It ruled Sikkim twice in the past by co-opting a ruling regional party into its fold.

The SDF, led by Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, which contested 31 seats, won 24 seats, and the SSP seven. The country's only non-territorial seat, the Sangha (monasteries), was won by an independent, Palden Lama, who was backed by the SDF. The Cong ress(I) and the SSP contested all the 32 seats. In 1994 the SDF won 19 seats but its tally increased to 25 when it admitted six SSP deserters.

The SDF's Bhim Dahal won the Lok Sabha seat for the third consecutive time by defeating his SSP rival, Satish Chandra Rai, by more than 20,000 votes. The Congress(I) candidate, Somnath Poudyal, got a little more than 9,000 votes.

Chamling was elected from his home constituency of Damthang for the fifth time in a row. However, two of his ministerial colleagues, D.P. Kharel (Health) and Ram Lepcha (Finance), lost to the SSP in the Central Pandam and Pathing constituencies respectiv ely. Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who ruled the State with a iron hand for almost 15 years until 1994, made it to the House from Rhenock, a constituency dominated by upper-caste Nepalis. However, he was defeated in his native Soreng seat by the SDF's R.B. Subba , by 66 votes. His wife and former member of Parliament, Dil Kumari Bhandari, lost to State Tourism Minister Garajaman Gurung in Temi Tarku by more than 1,300 votes. The key Gangtok seat in East district went to the SSP's Narendra Pradhan for a second ti me.

Ethnic issues dominated the election scene. The 2,55,253 voters consisted mainly of the three ethnic communities of Bhutias, Lepchas and Nepalis. The SDF enjoys the support of the Other Backward Classes within the majority Nepali community. Nepalis const itute about 72 per cent of the State's population of nearly six lakh (upper castes 26 per cent, OBCs 38 per cent and Scheduled Caste 8 per cent). The remaining 28 per cent comprises of the minority Buddhist Bhutia-Lepcha tribal community and a fraction o f the plains people.

THE results have indicated that the SDF's support base in the rural areas has remained intact. In a bid to win over the Bhutia-Lepcha community, the SDF had demanded that one more seat be reserved for Sikkim in both Houses of Parliament. The SDF had also demanded that Newars, Bahuns and Chhetries, or the NBC, and Jogis, Sanyasis and Thamis be included in the list of OBCs. This helped the SDF garner the electoral support of a sizable section of upper-caste Nepalis, in addition to that of Bhutias and Lepc has, who belong to backward communities. The fact that Chamling himself belongs to the OBC category, which constitutes the largest chunk of the electorate, helped the SDF win the support of voters of those communities.

Chamlings's hold over the Nepalis of Mongoloid origin was seen to be intact as he won all the 16 seats in the South and West districts. On the other hand, Bhandari, an upper-caste Nepali Kshatriya, and his candidates won six out of the 12 seats in the u pper-caste-dominated East district. In the last Assembly elections, the SSP won eight seats in the district. Of the 12 seats reserved for Bhutias and Lepchas, the SDF won 10 and the SSP two. In the previous elections, the SSP had won six reserved seats. The SDF retained the two reserved seats of Reteypani Western Pandam and Khamdons.

P.K. Chamling.-SUSHANTO PATRONOBISH

Former Chief Minister Sanchaman Limboo and former Ministers, including Man Bahadur Dahal, Thukchuck Lachungpa and Taraman Rai, who contested on the Congress(I) ticket, were defeated. Former SDF Deputy Chief Minister P.T. Lucksom and former head of the Si kkim Ekta Manch Laxmi Prasad Tewari, who represented the Congress(I), were defeated in Renchinpong and Dentam constituencies respectively.

Unable to win a single seat, the Congress(I)'s game plan failed. The State party leadership was aware of the fact that it would not be able to win a good number of Assembly seats. But it tried to win at least three seats in addition to the four it has in the previous Assembly, in order to be in a position to strike a deal with the SDF or the SSP in the event of a hung Assembly. With the hope of capturing the tribal vote bank in the rural areas, the Congress(I) kicked off its poll campaign immediately af ter the announcement of poll dates by holding a rally in Gangtok.

The Congress(I) ruled the State for five years from 1974. It started losing strength after the 1979 elections. Bhandari quit the Congress(I) and formed the SSP, which was elected to power in 1979. He ruled for three terms, barring a brief break in 1984 w hen the State was under President's Rule. In the 1985 elections the SSP won 29 of the 32 seats. Its performance was astounding in the 1989 elections, when it won all the 32 seats. It was in 1993, a year before another round of Assembly elections was due, that Chamling, a Minister in Bhandari's Cabinet, broke away to form the regional party, the SDF. The party won an absolute majority in the 1994 elections. This time it has come to power with increased strength, marginalising the SSP and decimating the C ongress(I).

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