PM’s Pakyong address: Reading between the lines

PLUS AND MINUS FROM PM SPEECH Jiwan Rai

Sikkim’s opportunity to hear two speeches from Prime Minister Modi in about three years is a privilege which is rare and therefore historic. Both the visits by the Prime Minister were to mark major milestones in Sikkim’s civilizational journey – the first to declare the state as India’s first and only organic state and the second to inaugurate the state’s first airport. Both times, Sikkim showed an unusually intense eagerness to listen to Narendra Modi, arguably the best orator in Hindi amongst all the Indian PMs. But it was not hard to see that there was a marked difference in the two speeches given in January 2016 and September 2018. Unlike his 2016 speech, this time he was very discreet in his commendation of the state government. He started with a poetic description of how impressed he was with the beauty of Sikkim. But he was quite chary of wholeheartedly complimenting the state government for Sikkim’s achievement in sanitation and organic farming. And then he dwelt much on a description of how the new airport was going to bring comfort to highlanders living a hard life in difficult terrain. The 14 thousand crore rupees that he talked about was not a part of the central grant released by the BJP government but was rather money invested in hydropower development by developers. Then he talked about the Rs 1500 crore given by the national Energy Grid of India for the transmission of electricity. Then he talked about Sikkim’s share of over 350 crore for the National River Conservation Plan. He chose not to give the disclaimer that it has not yet been released. But this part of his speech did trigger a knee jerk reaction among a section of people in the state. He attributed a major chunk of his speech to highlighting the special emphasis his government is putting on the development of the NE. He talked about road construction, railway connections, airports and big bridges. He has been a very lucky Prime Minister to have come to the government when several mega projects started by previous governments were ripe for inauguration. The 9.15 kilometer long Dhoha Sadiya Bridge over the Brahmaputra river is one example. This longest bridge in the NE was started in 2011 during the UPA regime. India's longest road tunnel with a length of 9.28 km, the Chenani-Nashri Tunnel on NH 44 in Jammu and Kashmir, was also started in 2011 but inaugurated by PM Modi in 2017. The Udhampur-Katra rail link in Jammu started in 2009, the rail line for Meghalaya, the Uri-II Hydro Electric Project (HEP), Kashmir started in 2005, the Sardar Sarovar project started in 1961 and the Kudankulam nuclear power plant started in 2002 were a few other projects which he got the opportunity to inaugurate. He did not share the credit with the previous governments that started the projects. But then, why would he? In a real sense, Prime Minister Modi was treading on thin ice when he talked about how the BJP government changed its approach to the development of NE. The Pakyong airport was also approved by the UPA government in 2008. The foundation stone of the railway link to Sikkim was laid in 2009. He could not name a single mega project that his government started in Sikkim. He made a subtle attempt to woo public support by saying what the BJP government was doing for the state. Those lines were so insubstantial that he could not name a single achievement that he could take credit for. It was too conceited of him to shamelessly take the entire credit for the airport. Understandably, he crafted his speech tactfully, in a way, to keep the state BJP happy by not mentioning the state government in any way. The change in the tone and substance of his speech might have been caused by the proximity of the general election. But overall, he looked unprepared or rather, lacked oomph to address the significant issues that people were eager for him to speak on. This was evident in his response to the three major political demands reiterated by Chief Minister Chamling. Our long-winded, oracular Prime Minister chose to be as brief as the amount of time it takes not to address the matter at all. So nonchalant was his response that even a child listening to him got the sense that he was not one bit concerned about those issues. He once again augmented my belief that, when it comes to understanding regional aspirations, the national leaders have their heads in the clouds. The Centre must know that Sikkim needs budgetary help for developmental projects as this young state has an infrastructural gap to grapple with but that does not fulfil the core need of this Himalayan state. The Prime Minister choosing not to address the demands put forward by the state government offended the general public. If he thought that the allusion to crores of rupees, which largely consists of investment by developers, was sweeter than his mention of these issues, he was terribly wrong. Delhi must change its tactics with NE states. Ramachandra Guha in Democrats and Dissenters writes, “As with China and Tibet, here too an anxious Centre has unsuccessfully sought to buy social peace and political compliance by bribery”. This he wrote about some NE states which aspire to independent ethnic homelands, distinct from the Indian republic. This, therefore, does not directly apply to Sikkim. But any attempt to sidetrack the core issue of Sikkim is an anathema. One of the biggest legacies from the last Chogyal is his unwavering stance on shunning bribery. When he was pushed to the wall by the Congress government during his last days, facing the worst possible financial crisis, he did not budge an inch and refused to give his assent to the merger. The Sikkimese people in general have accepted the merger but Sikkim’s civil liberties can never be compromised with money. The current government has never clubbed the demand for budgetary aids with the core agenda during both the visits by PM Modi. This is no mean gesture. A young local journalist once told me that the new generation of Sikkimese people are more worried about jobs than seat reservations. We tend to miss the actual construct and complexities of Sikkimese society when making such an assessment. In the post-merger era, nothing is more significant to Sikkim than the preservation of the distinct identity of the Sikkimese people. How else can Sikkim survive in an aggressive diverse, multi-ethnic, many-layered, multi-lingual India with the fastest growing population? Therefore, anything that augments a sense of Sikkimese distinctiveness in India is vitally significant. The relevance of seat reservations in the State Assembly will become increasingly strong with passing years. More so in the contemporary political dispensation where advocacy for a Uniform Civil Code (One India, One Nation, One Law) is gaining unprecedented currency. The ramifications of the UCC on Article 371 F, in particularly clause (k) could be far reaching. The distinct identity of the Sikkimese also has a special significance with the Nepali communities which face an “immigrant” tag time and time again. Chief Minister Chamling’s argumentation about the distinctive historical roots of Sikkimese Nepalis must be understood in this context. The constitutional recognition of the remaining Sikkimese communities as Scheduled Tribes, therefore, is a cornerstone political agenda in Sikkim politics but Prime Minister Modi did not even utter a word on this. The exemption of income tax for Sikkimese people has a tremendous significance in the same context which is therefore one of the biggest accomplishments of the present state government. These emotional and symbolic aspects have such significance that Sikkim may never choose to live without them. [The writer can be contacted at jiwanr@gmail.com]