Sikkim is a state that has always had an elected regional party form the government. This has been the norm since the state became a part of the Union of India in 1975. Since the 2014 general elections which also coincide with the state assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to find alliances within the state, much the same way the Congress had. While the Congress found Nar Bahadur Bhandari’s Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) a useful ally, the BJP seems to have found an ally in the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), led by Prem Singh Tamang or as he is known, P. S. Golay. The result of the 2014 elections saw the BJP get completely trounced in the state even though it formed the government at the union level. Neither the Congress nor the BJP won a single seat; instead, the 32-member house saw the Pawan Kumar Chamling-led Sikkim Democratic Front win 22 seats while the SKM won 10.
In a move characteristic of the SDF, the party aligned itself with the party in power at the union level, having secured both the lone Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha seats. The SDF is a member of the North East Democratic Alliance, formed as a part of the BJP’s ‘Congress Mukt Northeast’. The SDF was formed in 1993 by Pawan Kumar Chamling, who at that time was a rebel member of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad.
The SDF would not have been able to have the impact it did, had the Mandal Commission not been formed. While it is true that Sikkim’s politics have mostly been dominated by Nepali-Sikkimese rather than Bhutia-Sikkimese or Lepcha-Sikkimese, the SSP was seen as being more favourable towards the high castes among the Nepali community. Bhandari went as far as to insult all the other communities, almost all of whom are tribal, classified as Nepali. This set the stage for a revolt through the ballot against him. Chamling being from a tribal community was seen as the only viable option. The party ideology is that of Democratic Socialism, based on the principles of achieving a secular socialist society through democratic means.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh the ideological partner of the BJP has sought to increase its presence in the Northeast including Sikkim. This has been sought to be done through an inclusive framework whereby local customs and food habits are to be respected. Such a drive became more apparent when Meghalaya hosted beef parties to protest cow vigilantism across India when visited by Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah on two separate occasions.
The pressure in Sikkim is however much stronger as the BJP has sought to mobilize the higher caste members of the Nepali community as well as the purano byapari trading community to turn against the SDF government. This can be seen as the President of the state BJP unit is a high caste Nepali.
After the state assembly by-election for the Upper Burtuk constituency, in which PS Golay had been removed for irregularities when he was the Minister for Animal Husbandry in the previous SDF administration, the BJP fielded a candidate against the SDF. The victory went to the SDF by 8,000 votes.
In a bid to possibly placate the BJP after the loss, in August the legislative assembly passed a Bill banning cow slaughter. Though observers saw this as farcical, given that due to customary practices cows are usually not killed for meat.
There have been other occasions for veiled attacks both by and on the SDF. While campaigning before the recently concluded 2017 Gram Panchayat Elections, the Chief Minister at a rally said: "You people must remain on guard with a political party which practices 'politics of religion' and is trying to gain a foothold in Sikkim by advancing its divisive political agendas." This statement though not specifically mentioning any party was seen by the BJP as an affront. The response following the popular narrative commented on the Chief Minister’s nationalist credentials, and on the issue of corruption and development in the state, the latter being something the ruling SDF has a lot to answer for.
The results of the Gram Panchayat Elections saw the SDF win 176 Gram Panchayat and 12 Zilla Parishad seats uncontested. The SDF was the winner, however, its vote share has been greatly reduced with many seats going to independent candidates.
Despite being a member of the NEDA the ruling party in the state has come under attack on several issues, according to the Sikkim Express the state BJP president Dal Bahadur Chauhan made disparaging remarks challenging the state government’s decision to ban all vegetables coming into the state in a bid to promote local organic agriculture.
As the events unfold, there is a high likelihood that pressure is mounting on SDF’s reign since coming to power in 1994.