When Pawan Kumar Chamling (69) left Mintokgang, the Sikkim Chief Minister’s official residence in Gangtok, on May 25, after 25 years on the post, supporters thronged the streets, many of them in tears.
Ten days later, the political theatre in the state has moved with one of India’s longest-serving CMs to his personal residence, a sprawling structure in Lower Ghurpesey in Namchi, 100 km away. Amidst yet-to-be-unpacked suitcases and cartons — a framed Mona Lisa print peeks from between two sofas — tea and edibles are making their way out of the kitchen to the dining hall. The tables creak under crates of onions, garlic, potatoes, apples and cups as newly elected MLAs and supporters throng to Chamling to chalk out the future path of his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF).
One of these paths leads right back to Gangtok. Just two seats separate the SDF from the party that won this time, Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) — 15:17. Three forthcoming bypolls could well reverse the picture, as the SDF asserts. “I will never retire. Politics is my passion and I will continue working. For now people have placed me in the Opposition and I am happy to serve in this capacity,” says Chamling.
For years now, Sikkim’s politics has revolved around him, with the SDF leader dominating the scene not just as CM but also as his party’s resident poet-songwriter with his own literary magazine (Nirman).
In the 25 years of the Chamling government, Sikkim saw its per capita income rise to Rs 2.33 lakh, against the national average of Rs 86,660; the infant mortality rate fall to 8, compared to the national average of 130 (per 1,000 live births); life expectancy go up to 73.15 years against the national average of 68.6; and the literacy rate for both men and women climb to above 90%, against 74% and 65% respectively for India. In 2016, the state received 8.06 lakh tourists, nearly two lakh more than its population. The number jumped 7% in 2017, and this year, Sikkim expects around 20 lakh tourists.
Besides, Sikkim was the first state to be declared open defecation free, and in 2018, Chamling received the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Future Policy Gold Award for becoming the world’s first entirely organic state.
Now, all eyes are on the by-elections, likely within six months. Three seats are falling vacant as the SKM’s Kunga Lima Lepcha and the SDF’s D T Lepcha and Chamling fought the Assembly election from two seats each, and must give up one.
P D Rai, an SDF leader who lost this time, says, “The SKM may have won more seats, but the SDF won the popular vote. The SKM’s vote share is 47.03%, ours 47.63%.”
“In three Assembly constituencies, NOTA votes were more than the victory margins,” says Consulting Editor, Summit Times, Pema Wangchuk.
Still, the SKM’s win marks the first time in the state that a government was voted out. While Sikkim has had a change in government twice earlier, in both cases, the incumbent government fell before the new government was formed.
Wangchuk says it is still sinking in among people “that they actually have the power to change a government”. “There is nothing substantially wrong that the SDF government did. Chamling continues to be popular. But people, and especially youth, who have never seen another government, wanted change.”
Zangyal Dorjee, 25, who runs a car accessory outlet in Gangtok, voted for the first time. “Ever since I was born, this is the only government I have seen. Frankly I am bored,” Dorjee says.
It is the youth that drove the SKM’s campaign, say analysts. Of the state’s 4.32 lakh voters, 16% were voting for the first time. Plus under-40 voters comprised 60% of the total.
Chamling himself cites Sikkim’s status as the country’s only organic and first green state, as well as women’s empowerment, as his government’s biggest achievements. “We have 50% reservation for women in panchayats and 33% in jobs,” he says.
Had he come back to power, the SDF leader adds, he would have focused on the LGBTQ community. “I would permit gay marriage in my state, there would be no opposition here,” he says.
SKM leaders concede the SDF government’s work, especially in empowering women. “Around 10 years ago, the government brought in a policy enabling inheritance of property by women. That was a good thing,” says SKM minister Kunga Nima Lepcha. However, the rest is “propaganda”, he adds. “Sikkim does not have either the land or the capability to raise so much organic produce. That is why you will find vegetables and cereals coming from Siliguri.”
Lepcha, who is considered No. 2 to new CM P S Golay, also cites the high unemployment rate, blaming it for the state having one of the highest suicide rates in the country. As per 2016 figures, Sikkim has 181 jobless people per 1,000 in a population, second only to Tripura’s 197 per 1,000. Its suicide rate, at 37.5 per 1 lakh people, is lower than only Puducherry (43.2).
Aside from generating jobs, the SKM promised to eliminate corruption. “Only Chamling’s relatives, those close to him and SDF workers received benefits from government schemes,” says Lepcha. He also claims the per capita income figure may be fudged. “The poor in Sikkim remain poor.”
The new CM, Golay, was a key SDF leader and the Industries Minister in Chamling’s cabinet from 1999 to 2004. After falling out with Chamling, he had floated the SKM in 2013, and in next year’s Assembly elections, picked up 10 seats. However, one after the other, seven of his MLAs had quit to join the SDF, and Golay himself had been convicted of misappropriating government funds, disqualified from the Assembly and sent to jail.
When he was released after a year, in 2018, thousands had assembled to greet him, in what is considered one of Sikkim’s largest political gatherings till date.