An alternative force

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Sikkim Krantikari Morcha chief Prem Singh Golay addressing a rally at Singtam in February. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister and Sikkim Democratic Front president Pawan Kumar Chamling, a file photograph. Photo: Sushanta Patronobish

The ruling SDF faces a strong challenge from the newly formed SKM in Sikkim.

FOR the first time since 1999, the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) may face a tough challenge from the main opposition, the newly formed Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), in the upcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Sikkim, which will be held simultaneously on April 12. However, the SDF seems set to return to power in the State for the fifth consecutive term and also retain the lone Lok Sabha seat.

In the last two elections, the SDF’s political dominance in the State was absolute. In the 2004 elections, it won 31 out of the 32 Assembly seats, and in 2009, it made a clean sweep, winning all 32 seats, including the Sangha seat reserved for the monks and nuns of Sikkim’s monasteries.

For long, the main opposition was the Congress. This time, however, the challenge comes from the SKM under the leadership of an erstwhile heavyweight of the SDF, Prem Singh Golay, a three-time MLA, a Cabinet Minister since 1994, and until last year the second-most powerful man in the SDF after Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling. Golay quit the SDF last year and formed the SKM. In a State where politics is dominated by individuals rather than political parties, the battle between Chamling and the former number-two man in his party promises to be interesting. The last time the SDF faced any kind of challenge was in 1999, when the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP), led by former Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari, won seven seats and secured 41.8 per cent of the votes.

Chamling is contesting from his usual seat, Namchi-Singithang, and also from Rangrang-Yangang in South Sikkim district, while Golay is contesting from Upper Burtuk in East Sikkim district, where he is the sitting MLA, and also from Soreng Chakung, his home constituency in West Sikkim district. For the Lok Sabha seat, the SDF candidate, Prem Das Rai, who won by a margin of 84,868 votes against the Congress’ Kharananda Upreti in 2009, will be looking to retain his seat, but this time his opponent is the SKM’s T.N. Dhakal, a former bureaucrat and a new face in Sikkim politics. The SDF has the tradition of supporting whichever party or alliance that comes to power at the Centre.

One interesting fact is that for the first time since 1979, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, formerly of the Congress and a three-time Chief Minister, is not a factor in the politics of the State. Bhandari, who was the main political opponent of Chamling for the past 20 years and who fought the 2009 elections as the president of the Sikkim Pradesh Congress, disappeared into political obscurity after his party was routed by the SDF. He has since rejoined his old party, the SSP, which he had left to join the Congress in 2003. The Congress, which has been the main opposition since 2004, has lost its relevance in the State. While it is largely acknowledged that the SDF has been performing well and development work has been going strong with substantial growth in the tourism sector, the State’s main revenue earner, it is also undeniable that the anti-incumbency factor is quietly at work. It is this desire for change that the SKM has taken up with its call for paribartan(change). “For the last 20 years of the SDF’s rule, it has been one person’s control over everything. The people now want a change. They want political and economic freedom; they want equal opportunities for all,” SKM leader Jacob Khaling told F rontline. The SKM’s election campaign also highlights the allegations of corruption and nepotism against the SDF government.

The main thrust of the SDF’s campaign has, as usual, been on development work. “We have secured peace, prosperity and security for the people of Sikkim. We are a tried and tested party that has the best imaginable credentials. Already, the people are getting disenchanted with the SKM and the politics of violence that it is associated with,” senior SDF leader Prem Das Rai told Frontline.

However, according to political sources in Sikkim, the SDF leadership has reasons to be worried. People from various other parties, including the Congress, have been shifting to Golay’s camp, and Golay is the most formidable opponent Chamling has faced in a long time. Not only is Golay aware of the functioning of the SDF, he is also believed to have played a key role in many of the SDF’s sweeping electoral victories. Moreover, the Other Backward Classes (OBC) which account for over 52 per cent of the total electorate and are so far the most important component of the SDF vote base may split, with a section voting for the SKM. “This is the first time in many years that the opposition has a leader, Golay, who belongs to the OBC. This must be worrying the SDF,” a political source told Frontline.

According to political observers, the fact that the SDF, in spite of the anti-incumbency factor working against it, chose to introduce only 10 new faces, retaining 11 of its sitting MLAs and recalling nine ex-MLAs, indicates that Chamling is not willing to take any chances, and is relying more on veterans this time. The SKM, on the other hand, has chosen to field mostly new faces as a counter to the SDF’s strategy. The main battle is expected to take place in the East and West districts. The South district still remains an SDF stronghold, while the West district is considered the heartland of the SKM. However, the SDF is not without any influence in these.

The main advantage that the SDF has over all its opponents is its disciplined, well-oiled, cadre-based party machinery. It was the first to release the list of candidates; and while other parties, including the SKM, were desperately trying to finalise their own lists, SDF leaders were already on the campaign trail. With less than a month left for the elections, the scenes at the different party offices were revealing. While the SDF headquarters in Gangtok wore an empty look, with most of its leaders out at work, there was frenzied activity in the offices of the other parties as last-minute details were finalised.

Moreover, when all the other parties have been in a state of flux for the last six months, with leaders and party workers constantly shifting allegiances, the SDF camp suffered hardly any attrition. Even when Golay left the SDF, not too many leaders followed him. But it cannot be denied that the idea of the SKM as an alternative to the SDF has been gathering momentum in the State. “The result can go either way,” said a resident of Gangtok.

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