Going over 45 years of Assembly Elections in Sikkim
Gangtok, 17 Mar: On 11 April, a Thursday, the nearly 4.24 lakh voters registered in Sikkim will get a chance to decide who represents them in the Assembly and in Parliament for the next five years. Political parties received barely a month for a proper campaign between the announcement of the dates and the actual date with the EVMs, and a week into the countdown, none of the parties have released the complete list of candidates and the election manifestos also appear to still be works in progress. And the clock is ticking. This will also be a time for great flux in the alignments of leaders and wannabe leaders as loyalties change with the announcement of names. This routine plays out in the run-up to every election, and this cycle should be no different. But then, politicians have traditionally been fickle when it comes to ideology and sulking, switching side and rebelling don’t even raise eyebrows anymore. While the fickleness of “leaders” continues to entertain, it might also be worthwhile to indulge in a recap of how electoral democracy has played out in statistics in Sikkim. After all, in about three weeks time, an important moment will have arrived for the electorate in Sikkim who have always been energetic about exercising their right to vote and the State has rather consistently posted very high voter turnouts. Polling can be expected to be just as involved this time around too. Although making predictions is very tempting, today we engage in a different approach and go over how Sikkim has voted in the past and what the important poll issues were in the fray. Going over past electoral performances is an interesting exercise in itself and viewing them in retrospect, weighing them against the dominant issues of the time, can also help engage in some projections on what will happen on 11 April, 2019. 1974 was the first time that the Sikkimese voted to elect representatives. The voting process was complex and the deciding of winners even more so, but this was still a major victory achieved by the LD Kazi led Sikkim National Congress. Sikkim, after all, was not ignorant of the arrival of electoral democracy in India, and the SNC was rewarded for its achievement secured for the people with a near-clean sweep – it bagged 31 of the 32 seats, with the Sikkim National Party winning only one seat. The 1974 election was held under the Representations of Sikkim Subjects Act, 1974, which gave Sikkim its 31 territorial constituencies and one seat for the Sangha. The 31 territorial constituencies were allocated as 15 for Nepalis, 15 for the Bhutia-Lepcha and one for the scheduled castes in what is commonly known as the parity formula and which was discontinued in 1979. This election was not held directly under the Election Commission of India since Sikkim was still a kingdom at the time and one unfortunate fallout of this has been that election details like voter turnout, votes polled by the candidates etc are not easily accessible. This could be an interesting exercise for a researcher to dig up. The pre-merger Council was allowed to continue as the Legislative Assembly of Sikkim after 1975 and the next elections – the first as a part of democratic India were held in 1979. This was an interesting election. Nar Bahadur Bhandari was fronting the Sikkim Janata Parishad and campaigned on the plank of de-merger. Also, the same year, a Bill seeking amendments to prepare Sikkim for its first elections as a part of India was placed in the Parliament. This Bill, which was to become infamous as the “Black Bill” of 1979 removed the seats reserved for the Nepali community in the Assembly and made them into general seats. The BL seats, for reasons that were never clearly explained, were also reduced to 12, the Sangha seat was retained and the SC seats increased to two. The fallout of the “Black Bill” was fast and devastating. The LD Kazi Government, already on extension, collapsed over night and the dissolution of the Nepali seats became an emotive political issue. It thus so transpired that there were two major issues in the air in 1979, each promoted by a different political outfit and the results reflected this. The Bhandari-led SJP struck the halfway mark with its MLAs winning in 16 constituencies. RC Poudyal’s Sikkim Congress [Revolutionary], which had taken up the restoration of the Nepali seats as its main agenda, came in second with 11 MLAs. While SJP received 31.49% of the votes SC[R], received 20.58%. Mr Bhandari went on to form the Government with the support of one Independent MLAs and the 4 MLAs of the Sikkim Prajatantra Congress. This alignment would go on merge into the Congress [I] soon after. Just as 1974 had won the people of Sikkim the right to vote, in 1979, the people realised that they could also contest, even as Independents. It has to be the excitement of exercising this new right that saw a staggering 108 Independents contest the 1979 elections. What is more, one of them even won, a feat that has been repeated only twice since then. In 1979, the Independents accounted for 16.50% of the votes polled, only slightly fewer than Mr Poudyal’s party and slightly more than the Janta Party into which LD Kazi had by then merged his party. In 1984, Mr. Bhandari was dropped by the Congress high-command on corruption charges [he had merged his SJP into the Congress]. The move backfired politically and the Congress was soon reduced to a minority by a near complete defection into the new party launched by Mr Bhandari - the Sikkim Sangram Parishad. In a way, the 1985 election was about getting Mr Bhandari back into power and the campaign was run on a strong anti-Delhi tone. It was thus a head-on collision between the SSP and the Congress [I] and the strong play on regional pride won the day. 30 SSP candidates emerged victorious and the party polled 62.20% of the votes polled. The Congress could muster only one MLA with 24.15% of the votes and from among the 94 Independents, one won. The 1989 elections in Sikkim are widely believed to have been less than fair with the rampant electoral mechanisations, dominant elsewhere in India at that time, also alleged in Sikkim. The list of candidates in the fray reflects this to some extent. Till 1985, parties of all colours and a strong number of Independents jumped into the electoral fray, but in 1989, the numbers dwindled drastically. In 1979, there were 244 candidates in the fray, in 1989, this dropped to 118. Only three regional political parties and Congress [I] fielded candidates. SSP bagged 70.41% of the votes. When elections came calling again in 1994, the Chamling-led Sikkim Democratic Front wave had swept through Sikkim with its “Bhandari Hatao, Sikkim Bachao” slogan and promise of returning democracy to an oppressively stifled Sikkim. This wave was peaking at the time when the Income Tax issue ambushed Sikkim and Mr Bhandari was dethroned by his own legislators. The SDF battle-cry against the Bhandari-led SSP lost some sting because he had already been ousted. There were three issue in the electoral fire – SDF’s call to win back democracy by ensuring that SSP did not return to office, Income Tax and a parallel move by Bhandari-adherents to get him back to power. Those must have been confusing times for voters and also for the politicians on how to rally support. It was also one of the most communally charged campaigns that Sikkim has seen. The confusion reflects in the vote-share because there appeared to be enough voters who wanted Mr Bhandari’s second mid-term eviction from power to be avenged. The SDF wave however held strong and it emerged as the party with the largest vote share of 42% and 19 MLAs. SSP was close second with 35.08% of the votes and 10 MLAs and Congress, which was the caretaker government in power at the time, managing 15.02%. The number of candidates was also a more robust 186 in 1994. The 1999 elections were seen as a vote on SDF’s performance in government and whether it had succeeded in institutionalising democracy as it had promised. The election was also promoted as a test on whether Mr Bhandari still commanded a following in the State. SDF received a thumbs up with a majority share of the votes at 52.32% and five more constituencies. The results also reflected that SSP was also still relevant because even it improved its vote share, although it recorded a drop in the number of MLAs this was good for. The Congress was no longer relevant, managing only 3.67% of the votes. Although one Independent candidate won, the number of Independent candidates had dropped to only 9 in 1999. The elections in 2004 elections were livelier in comparison. Free expression had gained ground in the 10 years that SDF had been in office and a healthier media had developed to report more extensively on the elections. Sikkim, which till then was serviced only by weekly newspapers and regional and national dailies which arrived here a day late and rarely carried any in-depth reportage on Sikkim, now had a clutch of daily newspapers. Also, there was a resurgent Congress in Sikkim with Mr Bhandari in its fold. There were also a slew of disgruntled former SDF members and this combo pushed a ‘silent wave’ murmur. The Opposition, however, remained traditionally disorganized and casual and this led to four constituencies being won by the SDF without a contest even before the State went to polls. The list of candidates, apart from the heavyweights, was lackluster across the board, but the contest was violent [by Sikkim standards till then] and the rumour mills kept busy. The electorate, however, had made up its mind. 71.09% of the votes – a record endorsement in Sikkim’s electoral history - were cast in favour of the SDF. The Congress managed only 26.13% and the others – BJP, CPM, SHRPP and SSP did not even break the double-digit mark, in fact, the other parties could not even convince 1% of the voters to vote for them. While the rout was near complete, a bigger take-away from this election was the confirmation that the sun had set on former Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari’s electoral pull. He contested from two constituencies – Central Pendam-East Pendam and Gangtok – and lost from both. 2009 saw a replay of 2004 with SDF improving on its presence in the Assembly from 31 to a complete rout of 32/32. Interestingly, while SDF won all seats, its vote-share climbed down slightly to 67.52%. There were three other national parties and three regional parties in the mix, but save the Congress which pulled in a respectable 28.31% of the votes, the rest stayed below 3.74% of the votes polled - Sikkim Himali Rajya Parishad’s vote-share. Where one would have expected all Opposition to have been decimated with this rout, the curse of 32/32 struck SDF too. Remember, SSP too rode a 32/32 domination in 1989-94 following which it was voted out of office and never allowed back. The 2014 term began with dissent in the SDF ranks with PS Tamang [Golay] almost missing out on a party ticket and then kept out of the Cabinet. The resentment festered and led to the launch of Sikkim Krantikari Morcha in Feb 2013. The party managed to round up the anti-incumbency sentiments, leverage social-media [a new platform which exploded in 2014] and benefitted from the army of young voters who exploded on the scene with Election 2014. The five years between 2009 and 2014 registered a substantial increase in voter strength at 23.34%. The electorate had increased only by 6.61% in the previous five years, 2004 to 2009. In retrospect, one can surmise that SDF also miscalculated in bringing back too many old warhorses as candidates. While many of them won, the messaging could have misfired with the extremely young voters, many of them first-timers who had not seen any other government in Sikkim since they were born. The next installment of this series will delve in Election 2014 in more detail and see if some aspects can be unpacked from that experience. Meanwhile, people can expect the belligerence of campaigning and the aggression to rise some notches. Media has also changed in the past years and while this has definitely improved on the speed at which information is shared, it remains to be seen whether social media can spin the same influence as it pulled in 2014.