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Sikkim Polls: Amid Communal Rhetoric by BJP, SKM to Face-Off SDF in a Direct Contest

All the 32 seats in the state assembly and lone Lok Sabha in the state will go to polls on April 19.
Prem Singh Tamang and Pawan Kumar Chamling. Photo: Facebook.

Sikkim goes to poll for the 32 Assembly seats and the lone Lok Sabha seat on April 19. The major actors in the fray are the two regional parties: Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) and the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF).

The SKM is a breakaway from the SDF and was formed in 2013 by Prem Singh Tamang (Golay); he was a prominent leader and minister for the housing and building department between 2004 and 2009 in the Pawan Kumar Chamling government. In 2009, the state vigilance department filed a case against him under charges of misappropriation of funds. In the April 2014 election, the first Assembly election after the formation of the SKM, the party won 10 seats out of the 32 in the assembly. However, seven MLAs defected to SDF on November 30, 2015 and Golay was convicted for corruption on December 28, 2016. Subsequently, he was disqualified from the Assembly on January 13, 2017, reducing the opposition in the state assembly to just two MLAs.

Theatre of the absurd 

In the 2019 elections, the SKM won 17 seats and the SDF ended up with 15 (two seats each contested by Chamling and Dorjee Tshering Bhutia), effectively 13 seats in the 32-member assembly. Although Golay could not contest the elections in May 2019 and was not among the 17 MLAs from his party, he was sworn in as chief minister. He did not contest because of the bar imposed by law consequent upon his conviction in a case of corruption. Thanks to the Modi government and the Election Commission, Section 8 of the Representation of People’s Act was circumvented, which allowed Golay to contest by-election.

Also read: How the Modi Govt’s Betrayal of a Key Vajpayee-Era Reform Helps Sikkim’s New CM

Meanwhile, on August 13, 2019, 10 of the 13 SDF MLAs left the party and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was thus that the BJP, which ended with no seats in the elections in May 2019, became a 10 MLA strong party in the assembly and the opposition in the technical sense. A party that polled only 1.62% of votes in April 2019 a few months from then was now a 10-member strong party in the 32-member assembly. The very next day on August 14, 2019, two SDF MLAs – G T Dhungel and M Prasad Sharma – joined SKM, leaving Chamling the lone MLA of SDF to mind the affairs of the party in the Assembly. Chamling decided not to attend the legislative assembly sessions after that.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The absurdity indeed unfurled soon after. When by-elections were held for three constituencies (vacancies caused when the incumbent MLAs resigned on account that they had contested and won in two seats each) on October 21, 2019, the SKM entered into a formal alliance with the BJP, and two of the three seats were left to the BJP: Yong Tshering Lepcha, a BJP candidate in the April 2019 elections who forfeited deposit with 5.2% of polled votes, and Sonam Tshering Venchungpa, a SKM candidate who lost SDF to a small margin of votes, were now BJP candidates, and they won.

Prem Singh Tamang (Golay), the chief minister of Sikkim, too, contested the by-election and won. As mentioned earlier, Golay could not contest the election in April 2019 as he was convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The BJP now had 10 MLAs who had defected from the opposition SDF and two elected as part of the ruling alliance.

The absurd state of things was perhaps unique: A ruling party in an alliance with the BJP, the same party was also in the opposition. This mockery of democracy continued for the rest of the term. Incidentally, the SDF had been a member of the North Eastern Democratic Alliance since 2014 and the SKM replaced it in the alliance since then. And at present, at least until the results of this election are announced, neither of them is part of this alliance. And the BJP is contesting in 30 seats on its own.

A short history of national parties

Prior to these dramatic defections and conversions, neither the Congress nor the BJP, the two national parties, could manage a foothold in this Himalayan state. In 1979, the first election after Sikkim was merged into the Indian Union (on May 16, 1975), the Sikkim Janta Parishad (SJP) of Nar Bahadur Bhandari, an emergency detenu and a staunch opponent of the merger then, won 16 seats and the Sikkim Congress (Revolutionary) of Ramchandra Poudyal, a quintessential rebel during the merger process, won 11 seats. The Congress party won nothing: it was left with a meagre vote share of 2.04%.

However, in the 1985 elections, Congress opened its account for the first time with a single seat and this was the only occasion, until 2004, where a national party had representation in the Sikkim Assembly. Nar Bahadur Bhandari’s new political outfit, Sikkim Sangram Parishad, SSP won 30 seats. However, Congress’s vote share augmented to 24.14% in the state. In 1989, it contested 31 seats but failed to secure a seat. Its vote share was 18.5%.  In the current election, Congress is contesting 12 seats.

The graph below shows the voting share of the BJP and INC (Congress), the two national parties in Sikkim between 1994 and 2019. The Congress had done reasonably well in the 2004 and 2009 elections and won one seat (that too the Sangha seat, reserved for monks in the monasteries) in 2004 during the strong SDF wave (when the party won 31 out of 32 seats). In 2009, though there was a slight increase in its vote share, the Congress won none and the SDF secured all the 32 seats. However, the Congress came in second place in 31 constituencies.

Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who contested under the Congress banner this time, lost the election to SDF candidate Ran Bahadur Subha. This founder member of the SDF was expelled from the party for anti-party activities in 2017, and he joined the Bhaichung Bhutia’a Hamro Sikkim Party in 2017. This is yet another story. In the 2019 elections, the BJP had fielded candidates in 12 constituencies and to the party’s dismay, all of them forfeited their deposits. The party’s vote share was just 1.6%. In the 1994 elections, it was 0.6%; the BJP did not contest the 1999 Assembly election, and the vote share was 0.34%, 0.78%, and 0.7% in 2004, 2009, and 2014, respectively.

This illustrates that neither of the national parties, even while in power at the Centre, could win substantial votes from Sikkim. One reason being that, so far, the people of Sikkim have guarded their Sikkimese identity with some zeal, whether it is in social and cultural life or in politics. This identity was prudently carved out during the time of the last Chogyal, Palden Thondup (1965-1974).

BJP as the new mediator

This is the political context of the 2024 elections. The main contest is still between the ruling party, SKM, and the SDF. The BJP broke their alliance with SKM, apparently over the disagreement with seat sharing, and decided to contest separately. As far as the BJP is concerned, it had accommodated only two out of its 12 MLAs. Two marketable names – D.R. Thapa, the present state president of the BJP, who was elected on an SDF ticket from the Upper Burtuk assembly constituency in 2019 and was the architect of the defection of 10 MLAs to BJP and Narendra Kumar Subha, yet another candidate of BJP contesting from Maneybung-Dentham constituency. He won on the SDF symbol in two consecutive terms in  2014 and 2019.

Subha was in the news last year as he alleged that Jacob Khaling Rai, personal secretary to Golay, is using his position to promote conversion to Christianity in Sikkim. The BJP already began to search for the “other” in Sikkim without which it cannot survive in the long term. Buddhism cannot come under the ambit of the definition of “other”. Dorjee Tshering Lepcha, who strongly associated with the defection was promptly rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat after the term of Hishey Lachunga ended in February 2024. He was a two-term MLA (2014 and 2019) from Gnathang Machong constituency from SDF. However, his daughter Pamin Lepcha is contesting from her father’s constituency from SKM and reportedly her father is campaigning for her.

While the BJP is raising serious allegations of financial irregularities, misappropriation of funds, and abetting violence (a reference to the recent violent incidents in Sikkim) by the SKM-led government, the SKM is cautious not to hurt the BJP; the party seems expecting an alliance, if the need arose, post-poll. Whereas the SDF and the Citizen Action Party (CAP), a new entrant into the fray and whose leader, Ganesh Rai too was in the SDF until a few years ago, and now contesting in all the 31 constituencies and the lone Lok Sabha seat, emphasise the danger of the growing influence of the BJP in the state.

They fear that this may water down the special protection of Sikkim under Article 371 (F) of the constitution. It should be recalled here that the Central government’s decision, few years ago, to permit foreign nationals to scale the Kanchenjunga sparked unrest in Sikkim. The SDF’s Rajya Sabha MP, Hishey Lachunpa sought assurance on Article 371 F on the floor of the house, during the debate on the deletion of Articles 370 and 35A, which he supported.

Challenges to Sikkim’s constitutional privileges

The exemplarity of Sikkim and its constitutional privilege have come under challenge and are now on the centre-stage of the discourse in Sikkim politics. One of the important election issues is the protection of Sikkimese identity and Article 371 F, the special provisions related to Sikkim. None of the political parties can afford to ignore this and are raising it now.

The last time when this sentiment came to the fore in Sikkim was as recently in January 2023, when the Supreme Court decided a case involving exemption from the Income Tax commitments to the settlers in Sikkim as well. The case was filed by the Old Settlers Association of Sikkim, predominantly business people from the rest of India running shops across Sikkim, seeking tax exemption; as always, the petition had lingered in the court for about 10 years. And when it came up for final hearing and decision, the court decided in favour of the inclusion of all those who had settled down in Sikkim prior to the merger of Sikkim with India on May, 16, 1975. The case and the decision involved Section 10 Clause 26AAA of the Income Tax Act, 1961.

The protest soon after was provoked by a reference by the learned judges to the Nepali speakers as people of foreign origin. This sparked huge protests in Sikkim as well as in nearby Darjeeling and the Kalimpong districts of West Bengal. The reference, however, was dropped later. Meanwhile, the finance ministry had inserted two more clauses into the Finance Act keeping in tune with the apex court’s decision.

A joint Action Council was formed with various civil society groups and SDF too protested against this openly. None of the political parties can afford to keep away from the issue and a resolution by the Sikkim government seeking the Union government to rectify the dilution of Sikkim’s special status under 371F was sent on April, 10, 2023. It is not surprising then, that the very first point in the SKM’s manifesto guarantees that the party “will provide full protection of constitutional rights guaranteed under Article 371F. there will be no dilution. It also promises a local protection Act if comes to power.

Yet another live issue of the election issue is the Limbu-Tamang Reservation to the Legislative Assembly, Sikkim. Since its merger in 1975 with the Indian Union, one of the major socio-political issues in Sikkim has been the demand for reservation in the State Legislative Assembly for the two communities: Limbu and Tamang. However, so far, the demand has remained merely a political rallying point. The Sikkim Krantikari Morcha made use of the issue as one of their main campaign agendas during the 2019 elections. Consequently, the Sikkim Limboo Tamang Tribal Joint Action Committee (SLTTJAC) also campaigned against the SDF during the 2019 election. All the political parties, including CAP, promise to resolve the Limbu-Tamang reservation by 2026, the year of delimitation.

Incidences of violence are a major concern of SDF and CAP in Sikkim. Sikkim is known for its peace and tranquillity. However, in recent years, there has been an escalation of violence and the SDF blames the SKM for the violence and thus destruction of democracy and suppression of dissidence in Sikkim, otherwise a peaceful state in the North Eastern region. There is evidence of increased incidences of individual violence.

Kedar Nath Rai, former speaker of the Sikkim Legislative Assembly and party spokesperson S K Timshina were attacked in Namchi last March. Joint action council general secretary, Keshav Sapkota was attacked in Singtam on April 9, 2023. The car of Mechung Bhutia, a former MLA of SDF, was also attacked. There was a stone pelting incidence at the SDF office. On February 5, 2023, SDF party office in Namchi, South Sikkim, was allegedly vandalised by SKM supporters. A travel from East to South Sikkim, the author could see only few SDF flags, even in the election times. SKM flags fluttered in almost all the households.

Upon the enquiry, the SDF workers alleged that most of the SKM flags are imposed on the house owner (SDF was doing the same a few years back and most of the SKM leaders including Golay who received his political training from SDF) and people are scared to refuse them. These incidences of violence may not be significant in comparison with what happens in the plains, but for the Sikkimese, this development is quite new. Opposition parties SDF and CAP offer a violence free along with a debt free state if they are elected.

Environmental neglect

Environmental degradation and the visible impact of climate change are major issues affecting the Himalayan state and its people. Interestingly, political parties have a consensus on this issue: absurdity again. Neither of the two serious contenders – SKM and SDF – seem to have learnt from the disaster that struck Sikkim on October 3 last year, when a cloudburst over Lhonak Lake in north Sikkim resulted in a flash flood in the Teesta river that killed 15 people.

Also read: As Sikkim Reels From Disastrous Floods, Concerns Over Warning Signs and Enormous Impact

The CAP, however, has an environment policy which promises to scrap the Teesta-IV hydroelectric power project proposed in Dzongu. It also promises that no additional hydroelectric power would be sanctioned. The party also promised to propose an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the Teesta-III hydel power project, which was washed in floods in October 2023.

Meanwhile, one section of the SDF’s manifesto is dedicated to the environment to make Sikkim a carbon-neutral green state. The manifesto also promises to complete railway projects in two phases. It also means more drilling, grilling, and tunnelling of more mountains. In fact, Chamling’s 25-year-long rule was responsible for the implementation of large hydro electricity projects  in the state. They were also responsible for the large number of pharmaceutical companies in Sikkim, as many got the river banks to construct their residential quarters and other buildings, thus destroying the biodiversity of the river banks. The SKM did nothing but continue the destructive developmental policies of the previous government.

This election is very critical to Sikkim. While the ingress of the BJP into this Himalayan state also unplugged the communal divides that were hitherto cleverly emasculated underneath the larger Sikkimese identity, if the sign of Ram Lalla flags along with the SKM flags fluttering in households signify any meaning, then even if the BJP wins one or two seats, they will form the government in Sikkim. MLAs from both parties will flock to the BJP with no qualm of shame or accountability to the voters who elected them to power. The communal polarisation that is already happening is indeed perceptible at ground level.

In all this noise and clutter, there are small outfits like the Manch Sikkim that seem to show light at the end of the tunnel. Well, this platform consisting of idealist young minds may not make any impact in terms of the composition of the next assembly. This collective of young idealists ‘disillusioned with the incompetence of past governments in the state,’ is also fighting in three constituencies ‘to bring about transformation in Sikkim by changing the structure of governance, the model of development’ and so on. Their slogan says it all “no investment politics.” And this is what the elections of 2024 and the discourse in Sikkim are all about now.

E. K. Santha (eksantha@gmail.com) is an independent researcher and the author of Democracy in Sikkim: An Untold Chronicle, based in Gangtok

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