After 25 years in power, the Sikkim Democratic Front led by Pawan Chamling has finally been ousted from office, winning 15 seats in the assembly elections, two seats behind the winning party Sikkim Krantrikari Morcha which is now preparing to form the new government with 17 seats.
The emotions in Sikkim are varied. The quest for change, the taste of something new after 25 years, the possibilities of better amenities in the face of growing unemployment, unstable health facilities and rampant adhoicsm.
Parliamentary democracy in Sikkim implemented in post Indian annexation era 1975 has had its own ups and downs. Successive governments have negotiated their way to power with a mix of kinship ties in the close knit society, the money power in the class ridden society and muscle power in an entrenched patriarchal society. The 45 years of parliamentary democracy in Sikkim have been particularly marked by the role of money in the political sphere.
The influx of money into Sikkim which had started in the post annexation era, largely through all the “development” projects has resulted in large scale corruption. The Indian government’s largest aid to Sikkim which was three and a half crores before 1975 increased to thirty-six crores a year after 1975 (highest aid per capita). The increase in budget was done deliberately to curb people’s dissent against the neo-colonial actions of the Indian government in Sikkim, at least during the early years.
Corruption is not just a political phenomenon but an everyday reality in Sikkim society. That corruption is rampant in all departments is known and normalized. It is accepted that complaints against the embezzlement are muzzled because every family has a relative or cousin engaging and profiting from it.
Today in Sikkim, Health facilities lack even basic amenities. Every checkup requires people to travel to private hospitals in north Bengal, which is extremely difficult for those from the lower classes. What is menacing in all this is the fact that in a society that has seen such an increase in the standard of living among the upper classes, basic amenities continue to remain scarce for people in the lower strata of the society. The everyday wage of those employed as wage labor and other unorganized sector is minuscule to living a standard life.
Apart from this, the condition of government schools remains disheartening and the Sikkimese upper class send their children to the elite local schools in Gangtok or the lavish boarding schools in Darjeeling or to private schools in north Bengal.
The Sikkim Krantrikari Morcha which is now going to form the new government has promised many things in its manifesto - promises of employment for all unemployed youth within 100 days of its government formation, Unemployment income of 10,000, loan waiver for farmers, permanent jobs, increase in salary for govt school teachers etc. For the indigenous minority of the state, it has promised to safeguard the separate status of Sikkim, seat reservation for Tamangs and Limboos and voiced its opposition to the communally motivated Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). The promises of the now ousted Sikkim Democratic Front were more or less the same in its manifesto. In fact, to speak of employment, permanent jobs and amenities for ethnic minorities have been the road followed by all political parties in Sikkim.
Although the SKM has promised to safeguard 371F, old laws and oppose the citizenship amendment bill there still remains a lot of loopholes in their promises. Before the elections, there were efforts to form an SKM-BJP alliance. In the 2014 elections, SKM openly pitched its support for the then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Their close relationship with the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) whose policies and actions of Hindutva against religious and caste minorities in mainland India, is worrisome.
The BJP has been an active force in trying to implement the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the North-East. How SKM will negotiate with the BJP government which has won again at the Center is still under question. Will it be able to maintain autonomy, which is integral to ensure and maintain the separate status of Sikkim?
Today more than ever, provisions such as Sikkim subject, old laws, land rights, 371F need to be safeguarded. The BJP government at the center over the past five years has done all it can to propagate its idea of Hindu Rashtra across the states in the north-east. Assam serves as a great learning ground for us as we see the Assamese today negotiating between the NRC and the CAB. This imagination of a uniform Hindu nation-state will have overriding effects on communities in the fringes; our distinct history, culture and practices will eventually erode if we do not build the conscious resistance in due time. To say that these are issues concerning only the mainland is ill-advised. It is wrong to assume that Sikkim will be able to remain immune to the larger polarization taking place across the country.
The 2019 elections in Sikkim will be remembered but whether for the better or worse is something we will only know in the coming days. The Sikkim Krantrikari Morcha in terms of policies does not seem to be offering anything new to the Sikkimese janta. Their primary slogan throughout the campaign centered around the need for change (Parivartan) but what form of change or change for whom wasn’t elaborated upon. To what extent this Parivatran reigns for the working classes, the lower classes and the indigenous sikkim subject holders will only be known in the coming days. The ranks of SKM continues to be filled with sons and daughters of former ministers, heirs of big business, of the local elite who leave no modesty in flaunting their family lineages in a still feudally arranged society.
The Sikkimese people have spoken this time nevertheless. They wanted change, a new face, an anticipation of a new era after 25 years of monotony, corruption, dwindling working conditions and empty promises. What lies ahead for us after 54 years of electoral democracy is only for tomorrow to tell. Was the Samjhauta that took place in 8th may 1973 worth all that has happened in our society over the years?
[the writer hails from Jorethang, South Sikkim, and is currently studying at Lady Sri Ram College, New Delhi]