The principal adversaries, Chamling and Bhandari, tower over others and the political discourse in Sikkim seems to revolve mainly around them
Any political party that has been in power for three successive terms will have to contend with the incumbency factor. But by deciding not to re-nominate nine out of a total 12 Ministers, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) hopes to have addressed this danger in one fell swoop. It will be seeking a public mandate for a fourth successive term when the Himalayan State goes to the Assembly polls and elects its sole representative in Parliament on April 30.
Twenty out of the 31 SDF MLAs do not find a place in its candidate list for the 32 seats that comprise the Sikkim Assembly — a move to give a “new look to the next Ministry.” The party’s Lok Sabha nominee is a new face too.
Significantly, none of those denied tickets have switched camps. Most of them have been given the task of organising election campaigns for the newcomers.
At one level, this is indicative of the unity within the SDF ranks and of the intra-party discipline enforced by its president and Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. At another, it points to a failure of a fragmented Opposition to make political capital out of the situation and wean away potential dissidents into its camp. The Congress is the major Opposition party in the State though it had only a single representative in the last Assembly — a monk who had been elected from the Sanga reserved constituency, the electorate of which comprises men and women drawn from the monastic order. Led by the former three-time Chief Minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, the party’s leadership is largely constituted of members of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad, a regional party that merged with the Congress before the last Assembly poll.
Until the merger, the Congress, like other mainstream national parties, had only a marginal presence; regional parties have traditionally dominated the political scenario in Sikkim. The merger of the SSP with the Congress before the 2004 election was designed to challenge the SDF’s supremacy. However, it did not help to advance the political fortunes of Mr. Bhandari, one-time mentor and now principal adversary of Mr. Chamling.
These two leaders continue to tower over others in the State’s political firmament, unchallenged in the parties they lead, with their own groups of unquestioning loyalists. Political discourse in Sikkim seems to revolve mainly around them.
In a bid to throw a combined challenge to the SDF, an alliance was formed of five Opposition parties led by the Congress in February. But it was short-lived. Called the United Democratic Front it came apart in less than a week with the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) denying being a part of it. Another attempt by the Congress to forge an electoral alliance — this time with the Sikkim Himalayi Rajya Parishad, a regional party — also fell through following a failure to reach a consensus on seat sharing.
There is little to choose from the manifestos of the Congress and the SDF. Both the parties seek reservation of seats in the State Assembly for the Limboo and Tamang communities, which constitute 10 per cent of the Nepali community. They also want Sikkim subject holders, people of old Sikkim origin who were residents before its merger with India in 1975, to be exempt from Central income tax.
Reserving seats for the Limboo and Tamang communities has sensitive overtones in a State where caste-politics has played a major role in the struggle for power. Mr. Chamling was catapulted to power for the first time in 1994 with the support of the Other Backward Classes and the Bhutia-Lepcha communities, which together comprise more than 75 per cent of the population. His ascendancy was helped by Mr. Bhandari’s failure to keep his support base among the upper-caste Nepali communities intact. The SDF has promised “ushering in change with continuity” and pursuing “a pro-poor policy” with an emphasis on rural development. It claims to have been able to bring down the figures of those below the poverty line from 36 per cent, when it assumed power in 1994, to 18 per cent. The Congress, on the other hand, has charged the State government with corruption. “An undeserving administration has left the people stunned and confused,” it alleges in its manifesto.