The head-spinning by-election and the tectonic shift in Sikkim’s politics

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By-Election: What art thou?

The recently concluded by-election (also by-poll) in Sikkim has been as confusing as its spelling is for many people: by-election or bye-election? Though both spellings are correct, technically, the latter is Ireland specific. Therefore, unless one is speaking of bye-elections in Ireland, one must stick to using the former. In America, by-poll is known as special elections. It will be too condescending a gesture to elucidate to readers as to why by-elections happen as almost everyone knows it only too well. However, I believe the readers won’t mind me sharing the history of how the idea of by-election came about. It goes as far back as 16th century. Thomas Cromwell of England is credited to have designed a procedure to fill the seat in the house of commons of England that had fallen vacant upon the death of a member. Cromwell designed the procedure such that the King could call the election at the time of his choosing, rendering the idea of by-poll to a mere procedure to reward an ally of the crown. Thus, by-election by its origin was designed to aid the British crown. In India, especially in Sikkim, by-election has become an occasion for the incumbent government to further strengthen its position.

The first ever Special Elections in the US was held in 1790. Independent India’s first by-election is very memorable by many accounts. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, one of the tallest leaders the country has produced, having lost in the first General Election of 1952, again contested in the first ever by-poll of the country in 1954 in which he lost again to a Congress candidate not anywhere as popular as he. Sikkim witnessed its first by-poll in 1980 when Mr. B.B. Gurung vacated Chakung constituency (he had contested from Chakung and Jorethang Nayabazar constituency in the 1979 Assembly Elections) from where late Mr. C.B. Rai won (both B.B. Gurung and C.B. Rai were from Sikkim Congress (R) Party). Of all the by-polls Sikkim has witnessed so far, this by-poll by all means has been the most dramatic and head-spinning. It has shattered some long-held myths about Sikkim’s politics and heralded a tectonic shift in the contours of Sikkim’s otherwise smooth and predictable politics. Let’s dig in.

A dramatic prelude to the by-election
Every by-election held in Sikkim earlier was not anywhere as exciting and as hardly-fought as this one. First time in Sikkim’s history, three constituencies were up for by-election. The closely contested Assembly Elections delivered a fractured mandate. SKM’s wafer-thin majority (17 seats) looked extremely fragile which left a room for many political watchers to speculate that Sikkim might go for a mid-term election if SKM lost all the three constituencies in the by-election. Up until this point, Sikkim’s politics looked quite smooth and predictable with only two possibilities – either SKM would win and continue to be in government or SDF’s victory in all the three constituencies would push the state to a mid-term election. However, two of the SDF MLAs rebelling against the SDF party’s decision to boycott the Assembly set the political cauldron boiling again. Rumours wafted from everywhere, of more SDF MLAs planning to rebel against the SDF party and possible switch-over. However, when ten of the SDF MLAs joined the BJP in August, all these rumours were overtaken by the ruling SKM party’s accusation that Pawan Chamling ‘sold’ the 10 MLAs to the BJP and thus betrayed Sikkim. The narrative caught on and spread like wildfire across the state. Some political observers in the state even went so far as to claim that it spelt doom for SDF party’s future prospects in the state.

In all this mayhem, almost nobody noticed that the two rebel MLAs had silently crossed the floor to SKM. The Sikkimese people had not yet recovered from the shock of ten MLAs joining the BJP and two rebelling MLAs joining SKM when they were rocked by another bombshell. The ruling SKM party that accused the SDF supremo of selling SDF to the BJP and betraying Sikkim itself entered into an alliance with the BJP for the by-election. The SKM has claimed that it has allied with the BJP for Sikkim’s development. However, Mr. P.S. Golay received a reprieve from the Election Commission just a day before the last day of filing nomination for the by-election enabling him to contest the by-election. The fact that it happened the very next day of the seat sharing between SKM and the BJP has laid bare the quid pro quo arrangement between the two parties. The BJP which had never managed to win a single seat in Sikkim and had polled less than 2% of the votes in the last Assembly Elections wrested from SKM two seats for itself, Gangtok and Martam Rumtek while SKM kept Poklok-Kamrang Constituency. The SKM also became the first ruling party in the history of India’s election to concede more seats to an ally. With it, the political spectacle in Sikkim became nothing less than chaotic. The BJP which suddenly became a strong opposition with 10 (SDF) MLAs in its kitty struck a deal with the ruling SKM party throwing the Sikkimese people into a head spinning confusion. It was under such circumstances that Sikkim glided towards by-election. The result of the by-election can be considered a watershed in Sikkim’s politics. Let us see how.

The by-election that shattered political myths and destroyed stereotypes
The SKM party efficiently utilised its publicity to paint SDF as the party to open the BJP’s entry into Sikkim. Though the SKM lost the moral ground to continue this narrative after it’s electoral understanding with the BJP, it was successful in establishing the narrative. SDF too hit back at SKM with equal might for its alliance with the BJP but that was countervailed to a large extent by SKM’s narrative as well as by the candidates of HSP, SRP and independent candidates who squarely blamed both SDF and SKM of betraying the Sikkimese people and jeopardising the Sikkimese identity protected by the Article 371F. The by-election was fought primarily on two major planks – of saving Sikkim (which appears quite a hackneyed slogan yet sells in Sikkim) and of development with the BJP’s support.
The result announced on 24th October delivered a clear message. SKM and the BJP combine trounced every other party in all the three constituencies. I’m not placing data here because it’s still fresh in our memory. The verdict of the by-election has clearly sent the following message –

  1. The people of Sikkim choose to vote for the party that’s in power – One fine recent example of the Local Bodies Elections of 2015. SDF party had lost to SKM in Gangtok constituency in the 2014 Assembly Election. However, just one year later, SDF won all the 53 wards of Gangtok Municipal Corporation.
  2. The bogey of national party no longer haunts the people – The SKM had sought a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. However, a massive backlash that it faced even from its own supporters forced it to back out. However, the by-election results have clearly established the fact that the Sikkimese people are no longer suspicious of national parties as hitherto believed. Some of the independent candidates such as Passang Gyali Sherpa had contested from Martam Rumtek Constituency purely on this plank. However, the dismal percentage of votes that he polled is indicative of the fact it has become a mere emotive issue and doesn’t translate into votes.
  3. The caste factor in politics has lost relevance – Caste no longer remains a determining factor in Sikkim’s politics. Poklok Kamrang which is considered as SDF’s stronghold with majority of the voters from the Rai community overwhelmingly voted for Mr. P.S. Golay. Though the widespread violence that marked the bye-election in Poklok Kamrang where the SDF party wasn’t allowed to campaign freely as a result of which the Election Commission was compelled to appoint a Special Observer for the constituency, the overwhelming majority of votes that Mr P.S. Golay managed to poll (84.5% of the total votes polled) is a clear indication that caste is no longer a determinant of voting behaviour in Sikkim.

This by-election in many ways can be considered a watershed in Sikkim’s politics. It has obliterated the long-held myths and stereotypes in Sikkim’s politics. The BJP’s massive victory from both the constituencies points to the fact that national parties no longer remain an outcaste it used to be until this by-election. The Sikkimese people do not give as much importance to the plank of ‘saving Sikkim’ and ‘protecting identity’ as is generally believed as to the overall idea of development that the BJP has rolled out. Though the SKM party might want to take credit for the victory of the BJP in these two constituencies and rightly so, no one can deny the fact that SKM too campaigned for the BJP and the people voted not for SKM but for the BJP.
The cast-calculation that so much dominates the Indian politics seems to have become redundant in Sikkim. The Sikkimese people, having jettisoned the age-old myths and stereotypes that defined Sikkim’s politics until now, have pushed the state’s politics to a threshold from which there will be no looking back. It is nothing less than a tectonic shift in Sikkim’s otherwise dreary politics. Every political party must reconcile to these facts and leave it to the good judgement of the people as to where they will take Sikkim from here. Ultimately, it is the Sikkimese people who get decide which issues are good for them and which need to be trashed. The more politicians and political parties try to shove their issues down the people’s throat, the more they tend to alienate the people.

About the Author: Santosh Subba is by training a software programmer with deep interest in literature and politics. He can be contacted at sonupondhak@gmail.com | Twitter: @sonupondhak

NB: Views/Opinions expressed in the article or write up is purely of the author or writer. For any queries or contradictions the author can be contacted in his/her email id.

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