The electoral battle in this Himalayan state is unfolding exactly in the manner that chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, then a minister in Nar Bahadur Bhandari’s Sikkim Sangram Parishad government, had scripted it 20 years ago.
Charging Bhandari with “stifling democracy” in Sikkim — he had even paraded through the Assembly with a candle in his hand in “search” of democracy — Chamling had revolted, left the SSP and formed his own party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), in 1993.
In the elections to the Assembly the following year, Chamling had decimated Bhandari and had gone on to become the chief minister, a position that he has continued to hold for the past 20 years.
If he wins this election, scheduled to be held on Saturday, and completes his fresh term, Chamling will set a national record as the longest serving chief minister of the country — 25 years — and better Jyoti Basu’s record by two years.
Much in the manner that Chamling had revolted, last year Prem Singh Tamang, popularly known as P.S. Golay, who had served as a minister in the first three terms of the Chamling government, too, stormed out of the party accusing the government of corruption and formed the Sikkim Krantikari Manch (SKM).
Today, Golay has become the rallying point of all those who are disillusioned with the Chamling government and is now the only credible Opposition in the state.
Nobody realistically expects the SKM to trounce the SDF in the polls to the Assembly and the lone Lok Sabha seat from Sikkim. But even Chamling’s supporters admit that Golay is the only politician in recent times who has managed to dent what was once considered Chamling’s impregnable citadel.
| Pawan Kumar Chamling
The complete lack of Opposition so far is reflected in the fact that the current Assembly does not have a single Opposition member. All 32 seats are occupied by the SDF.
Sitting in the drawing room of his Gangtok residence, Golay told The Telegraph: “I revolted against Chamling because there was too much of corruption in his government. Favouritism and nepotism are a part and parcel of his government. The rampant corruption made me distance myself from the SDF.”
Golay added: “Sikkim has had enough of the one-man rule of Pawan Chamling for 20 years. The state now needs a government which will really work for the people.”
SDF supporters, however, point out that the “real” reason for Golay’s revolt was his removal as a minister in Chamling’s fourth term. “He could not accept the idea of not being a minister and became a dissident before revolting,” a SDF leader said.
Dismissing the allegation, Golay said his “revolt” had finally achieved what had been eluding the Sikkimese people for the past two decades: a “genuine Opposition”.
“Sikkim has now got a genuine Opposition, which is standing by its people,” Golay said.
B.B. Gurung, an 84-year-old former chief minister who now states that he is a “retired politician without any political affiliation”, agrees in most parts with Golay’s assessment of the situation.
“Chamling has been the chief minister for a long time,” Gurung said. “Complacency has set in and it is time for parivartan. The charges against Chamling have been piling up and people are saying there is corruption, lack of transparency and accountability.”
Gurung also made it clear that in the absence of any Opposition, Chamling has been “getting away with everything”.
| PS Golay
“Democracy without Opposition is meaningless,” Gurung said. “But now there appears to be a change in the air. Golay may not yet become the chief minister but he will give a fight and the presence of an Opposition is certain in the next Assembly.”
Despite the charges piling up against Chamling, even his critics admit that development has been taking place in the state, especially in tourism, and that this could be crucial to the chief minister in these elections.
Several retired bureaucrats explained that two issues key to this election are development and youths.
“While Chamling can claim development has taken place in the state during his tenure, Golay, himself a young man, has the backing of the youths, especially since unemployment is becoming a factor in this state,” said Jayashree Pradhan, a retired IAS officer.
One factor that could put a bit of wind in the SKM’s sails is that it has the SSP’s backing.
Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who had in between left the SSP to join the Congress and has now revived the SSP, said that instead of fielding his own party candidates, he would throw his weight behind Golay.
“Golay must win, he is the man who has rebuilt the Opposition in Sikkim,” Bhandari said, “I might not be the king, but I will become the king-maker after the polls.”
Although the SSP is not riding high on popularity, many in the political circles believe that at least it is one step closer to bringing the Opposition parties here together.
“The Congress and the BJP do not matter in Sikkim,” said a senior bureaucrat who did not want to be named. “So the fact that Bhandari is supporting the SKM is a move in the right direction for the Opposition here.”
However, at least on the surface, the SDF is being brazen about its chances in the elections.
“We will do a repeat and get 32 out of 32 again,” said SDF spokesperson Bhim Dahal, before hastening to add: “Maybe one or two seats could go the other way.”
The SDF believes that the Chamling government has been high on delivery and that its opponents are “inventing” charges because Chamling has remained in power for 20 years.
“Where is the proof of the charges that the Opposition is levelling against us?” Dahal asked. “There are courts in this country. Why doesn’t the Opposition approach them if they think we are corrupt?”
Golay’s response: “Let the results be announced first. Then we will think of the next course of action.”
Sikkim votes on April 12