Assembly Elections: Sikkim

Chamling’s record

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Pawan Chamling. His leadership and personality have been key factors in the SDF's repeated success. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Former Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari (left) and SKM chief Prem Singh Golay at Rangpo on April 9. Photo: Lila Sah

The SDF returns to power for the fifth consecutive term in Sikkim, but for the first time in 10 years the Assembly has a strong opposition.

THE ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) in the Himalayan State of Sikkim returned to power for the fifth consecutive term, winning 22 of the 32 seats in the Assembly. It also won the lone Lok Sabha seat in the State. Its principal opponent, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), led by former SDF heavyweight Prem Singh Golay, won the remaining 10 Assembly seats, including the single Sangha–reserved for the monks and nuns of Sikkim’s monasteries.

The victory has brought Chief Minister Pawan Chamling a step closer to being the longest-serving Chief Minister in the country, a record held by former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who held the post for 23 years. Chamling has been the Chief Minister of Sikkim since December 1994.

The SDF saw the strongest challenge to its supremacy since 1999 in this election. In the last two elections, there was practically no opposition in the Assembly. In 2004, the SDF won 31 of the 32 Assembly seats, with the reserved Sangha seat going to the Congress; in the 2009 elections, it made a clean sweep of all the 32 seats. In 1999, the opposition, the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) led by former Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who later joined the Congress, won seven seats—three less than the SKM this time.

In spite of the anti-incumbency factor, the SDF’s thrust on “development, peace and security”—its catchwords for the last three elections—prevailed over the rising call for “parivartan”, or change. However, the SKM had taken up this slogan for change in a big way and achieved considerable success in comparison with the earlier efforts of the opposition. The ruling party won over 55 per cent of the votes.

Calling it a “historic” victory, senior leader and spokesperson of the party Bhim Dahal said the SDF’s development work along with the welfare measures it had taken up played a key role in the party’s return to power. “Developing Sikkim is a mission that we have taken up. We aim for all-inclusive growth and are working towards making Sikkim a kuchha-house-free and financially self-sufficient State in the next five to 10 years. Pawan Chamling is the tallest regional leader in national politics, and we are very proud of him and what he has achieved in the last 20 years,” Dahal told Frontline. According to Dahal, when Chamling and the SDF first came to power in 1994, more than 50 per cent of the people in the State were living below the poverty line. “Today, largely because of our government’s policies, less than 5 per cent of the population is below the poverty line,” said Dahal.

The voting pattern in Sikkim this time gives the State’s politics a new dimension. While the SDF swept the South and West districts, winning all the 16 seats there, the SKM got its votes from the East and North districts, winning eight of the 12 seats in East district and one of the three seats in North. While South and West districts are largely rural, East and North are more urban, pointing to a clear divide between the urban and the rural voters’ preferences.

Senior SDF MP Prem Das Rai, who was elected to the Lok Sabha for a second term, said: “We have always been a rural-centric party and have kept our rural vote bank intact; that is how we have bucked the anti-incumbency trend.” He admitted that urban voters, fuelled by the call for change, had voted for the SKM, though not in overwhelming numbers. “In most places, the SKM won with very slender margins, whereas in rural seats we won by big margins. But we have to accept that the SKM did win in urban seats and we respect and welcome the mandate of the people,” he said.

While Chamling won convincingly from both the constituencies he had contested—Rangang-yangang and Namchi-singhithang—Golay won only the Upper Burtuk seat where he was the sitting MLA but was defeated by SDF candidate Tilu Gurung in the Namthang-Rateypani constituency.

In a State where politics is dominated by individuals rather than parties, Chamling’s leadership and personality have been key factors in the SDF’s repeated success. For all the allegations of corruption and nepotism surrounding his government, even those who voted for the SKM will concede that there has been development in Sikkim. “Last time, I voted for the SDF; this time, I voted for the SKM mainly for a change, not because I have any major grievance against the government,” said a resident of the State capital of Gangtok, which voted against the SDF this time.

In fact, under SDF rule, Sikkim has seen an annual growth of over 12.6 per cent over the past eight years, emerged as a major tourist hub and an important destination for ecotourism, and is largely considered one of the best-managed small States in the country. “One of the reasons why the SKM could not beat the SDF was because it really had no solid issue on which to fight the ruling party. Mere change for the sake of change was not enough,” said Amit Patra, editor of the Gangtok-based Sikkim Express.

From 1994 to 2009, Chamling’s political opponent was former Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari. This was the first time since 1979 that the three-time Chief Minister was not a factor in the politics of the State; his place was taken by Golay, formerly of the SDF. A three-time MLA and a Minister in Chamling’s Cabinet since 1994, Golay was considered the second-most powerful man after Chamling in the party. Many felt that Golay’s intimate knowledge of the functioning of the SDF gave him a stronger chance than previous opposition leaders.

But what has impressed most people is how quickly Golay managed to establish himself as a strong opposition force. After officially quitting the SDF and forming his own party in 2013, it took him just about a year to emerge as a serious threat to Chamling. “The 10 seats are just the beginning of the SDF’s downfall and the start of the real revolution for ‘parivartan’,” he said after the results were declared.

But the SDF does not appear to be too concerned about the SKM’s performance. “Our work ahead is cut out for us. We have certain goals—removing poverty, [working on] infrastructure development, providing universal healthcare, etc.—and we will be going about achieving it,” said Prem Das Rai.