Image for representational use only. Image courtesy: The Voice of Sikkim
Unlike the rest of India, which is dealing with a Hindutva vs secularism challenge, the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Sikkim, which concluded on April 11, were in reality between two rival regional political parties, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) and the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM). Though Baichung Bhutia has claimed that his Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP) would turn the election into a three-way contest, it is highly unlikely that the results will reflect this.
Stray incidents of violence have been reported from South Sikkim. On April 4, an SDF youth convenor, Bikash Rai was attacked at Bul Singtam by alleged SKM supporters. Bikash Rai survived the attack, however, his car did not. On April 11 (polling day), in the evening, Hari Subba was struck on the head with a khukuri by a gang of alleged SKM supporters. He too survived the attack. Though the attacks have been blamed on the rival SKM, many locals allege that the SKM has hired mercenaries from across the river in the Darjeeling Hills. This has not gone down well with the local people of Sikkim who are used to peaceful elections.
Further, the SKM’s proposed alliance – which fell through – with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ended up being their undoing. The local people of Sikkim are not yet ready to elect a national party in the state. Further, rumours that the SKM was being funded by the BJP has also alienated people from voting for them. This includes a significant segment of people who ordinarily are conservative Hindus and observe chhut – achhut (untouchability). This is not to say that the SKM will not gain in their strongholds. West Sikkim, where the party founder, Prem Singh Tamang (Golay) is from, remains fairly loyal to the SKM and is likely to have voted in their favour. However, West Sikkim only sends four members to the state legislative assembly.
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Observers in Gangtok feel that the tide is turning against Chamling. Many even think that the HSP will severely dent the SDF. This is premised on the fact that the HSP campaign is crowd funded and run on an anti-corruption platform. However, if one were to traverse the rural areas away from the state capital, the sheer number of houses flying the SDF’s party flag ought to speak for themselves.
Thus, it appears that Chamling will not yet be unseated. Apart from Chamling contesting from two constituencies – Poklok-Kamrang and Namchi-Singithang – the SDF has tended to gain the upper hand whenever a divided opposition with multiple parties presented itself. Secondly, the SDF learnt from its mistakes in 2014, when it lost 10 seats to the SKM. The core SDF voter base is rural, and most of Sikkim is rural. Young and first-time voters also present a viable and malleable demographic which the SDF has been able to capture using various marketing gimmicks from printing t-shirts with Chamling’s face on them to umbrellas and even distributing pen-drives with pro-SDF songs on them. The other pull factor has been the lure of money which is alleged to have been distributed at SDF rallies.
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In terms of the Lok Sabha elections, the SDF has never received a vote share lower than 52% – in 1999 – for the lone Lok Sabha seat. However, 2014 was certainly a turning point for the party as it was then that the SDF received its next lowest vote share. In 1999, former Sikkim Chief Minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari’s Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) received around 42% of the vote with the Congress being the only other party in the fray. In 2014, with both the Congress and the BJP contesting as well, the SKM was able to receive around 40% of the vote share, despite the so-called ‘Modi wave’. What this indicates is that there is a strong anti-incumbency sentiment in Sikkim. However, at present, it seems unlikely that the SKM is the change people want to see.
This is an unfortunate outcome for one of the candidates in the fray, 30-year-old Indra Hang Subba. Subba first entered political activity on the basis of the Limboo-Tamang seat issue since he belongs to the Limboo or Tsong community. However, delving deeper, he realised that such narrow thinking will not do in Sikkim with its myriad of problems. In this regard, what perhaps shows his idealism was his wish to ensure that all communities in Sikkim would receive the hallowed Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Sadly, the SDF candidate is most likely to win only because he is contesting on a SDF ticket.
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The SDF, despite not having much to show for its 25 years in power other than statues and dams, has consistently done well since it first entered the state assembly in 1994. At that time, the SDF’s vote share was the lowest in its history, yet it formed the government after winning 19 of the 32 seats contested with a vote share of 42%. What was perhaps the party’s greatest success was the 2009 elections when they received 65.91% of the votes polled and won every seat they contested in the 32 member Assembly. At this time, there were 9 parties in the fray, of which only the Congress was contesting all 32 seats. The Congress received 27.64% of the vote share.
In the 2014 assembly elections, despite the SDF receiving around 55% of the vote share, they lost 10 seats to the SKM who received around 40% of the votes. The lowest vote share the SDF ever gained was in 1994 at 42% and 19 seats. The runner up in that election was the SSP who received around 35% of the votes and 10 seats. In this regard, 2014 was certainly a wake-up call for the SDF. However, the SKM’s antics are likely to aid the SDF with its mantra of peace in Sikkim.