Reports stated that Chamling is urging Sikkim’s 4, 23,325 voters to choose “experience over disruption”.
Sixty-eight-year-old Chamling has been playing a long innings in the Himalayan kingdom – since 1994 – and no other party has been able to dethrone him since then.
Sikkim votes on April 11 next to elect its 32-member Assembly and sends a lone representative to the Lok Sabha. Experts say that it may well be the end of Chamling’s 25-year run.
Fifty-one-year-old Prem Singh Tamang may well sound the death knell for Chamling’s political career.
Founder of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), he posed a serious challenge to Chamling in the 2014 polls.
Tamang is more popularly known as Golay and his party has a “huge fan following” in the form of youths more than half of whom are in the 18-45 age group. He is rooting for change.
Golay was at one point of time the trusted lieutenant of Chamling who has now turned his arch rival.
Experts wonder if the anti-incumbency factor has caught up with the longest serving CM of Sikkim.
Says SKM social media cell and publicity wing head Manoj Pradhan, “Who doesn’t need change? That’s the only thing that’s constant in life. It’s time for Chamling to make way for a change-maker like Golay.”
Making barbs at Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), he charged the party with “exploiting tribal and caste fault lines and indulging in appeasement politics to stay in power”.
For the uninitiated, the indigenous Lepchas – now called the “vanishing tribe” because of their dwindling population – and Bhutias – make up only a fifth of Sikkim’s population.
The Bhutias are a privileged and powerful community of Tibetan descent because of their shared cultural moorings with the Chogyal, or ‘the righteous ruler’, belonging to the now-abolished 333-year Namgyal rule.
Nepalis comprise three-fourths of the population in Sikkim and they play a key role in the corridors of power here.
The ethnic groups of the Rais comprise the Nepali majority – to which Chamling belongs – and they make up 30 per cent of the Sikkimese society.
It is these skewed population numbers and how they play out in a democratic polity that have turned the indigenous people of Sikkim into political non-entities even though 12 of the 32 Assembly seats are reserved for Bhutia and Lepcha communities, and two for Nepali Scheduled Castes and one for the Sangha constituency where about 3,500 monks from over 100 registered monasteries are the only eligible voters.
Tseten Tashi-Bhutia, the convener of the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), is waging an uphill battle for the indigenous people’s rights.
“Any dilution in the provisions of Article 371F may create a national security threat in a border state like Sikkim, if not properly monitored by the Central government. Besides, we’ve been deprived of our constitutional rights and basis of survival in our own homeland,” he says.
The chief minister has given Assembly poll tickets to 17 new faces to counter Golay’s prowess.
Prem Das Rai, a two-time MP from the ruling party, trots out Brand Chamling’s impressive record card over the past 25 years: An organic push way back in 2000 to the one family-one job scheme (every Sikkimese household has been assured of a government job), a cleanliness drive much before Swachh Bharat Abhiyan became synonymous with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a ban on honking and smoking in public places in urban centres like Gangtok, Sikkim topping the list as the most prosperous state on the back of the highest per capita income – Rs 2,33,954 against the national average of Rs 94,731 as of April, 2018 – improved healthcare, life expectancy and a sustained push for higher education.
“New Delhi can take a leaf out of Sikkim’s book as Chamling has set the template for other states to emulate,” says a serving state government bureaucrat on condition of anonymity.
Chamling seems unmoved by the SKM challenge as he says, “I have always been an ardent supporter of liberal democracy where voices of dissent are allowed to have a free run. It’s for the people of Sikkim to decide on April 11 next what I’ve done for them in the last 25 years. I’ve been a trenchant critic of dynasty politics, and that’s why all my children have steered clear of politics. This is a battle between experience and disruption. The peace-loving people of Sikkim will never choose an Arvind Kejriwal-brand of politics over sustained development. Our manifesto lays bare the roadmap for a prosperous and peaceful Sikkim.”
Golay, who fashions himself as the Imran Khan of Sikkim politics, is confident that he will make it as there are “growing allegations of corruption in high places in the state”.
Golay says, “In 2014, we hurt the SDF by wresting 10 seats, mostly in urban areas of East Sikkim. This time around, we’ve made inroads into rural areas, which will determine the outcome.”
Sikkim is perhaps the only state in India where national parties are not in the reckoning.
The Congress has no presence in the border state and the BJP’s bid to cash in on the Doklam standoff has come a cropper.
Only May 23 will tell whether David (Golay) can slay Goliath (Chamling) in this Himalayan battleground.