Jyoti Basu holds a record that no politician in India has been able to break so far. The late communist patriarch was the longest-serving chief minister the country has ever seen— he ruled West Bengal uninterrupted for 23 years. Come 12 April, a diminutive leader from a remote village on the Himalayan foothills in Sikkim will get a chance to break Basu’s glorious record.
On 12 April, Sikkim will go for Assembly polls along with the lone Lok Sabha seat in the state. If the people vote in favour of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), then Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling, 63, would go on to break Basu’s record and find a place in India’s political history. Since taking over as the chief minister in 1994, Chamling has never faced any electoral defeat.
In the 2009 Assembly polls, the SDF won all the 32 seats, including the Sangha seat reserved for Buddhist monks. The party has won Assembly polls four times in a row, and on every occasion the performance has only gotten better.
In these two decades, Chamling has scripted the story of growth and development in Sikkim, which merged with India in 1975 through a public referendum that brought an end to the Chogyal dynasty’s monarchy.
Back then, Sikkim was ailing on many fronts. There was no infrastructure, no income generation and communication was a major hurdle in the mountainous terrain. Today, it is a global brand name in ecotourism and is known as one of the best-managed small states in the country. And Chamling has become synonymous with what modern Sikkim is all about.
“Chamling and the SDF have fulfilled the aspirations of the people,” says Shushil Rai, a Chamling supporter. “After its merger with India, the condition of the state was very feeble. Hundreds of people left the state in search of employment in metros. Now, people are taking to entrepreneurship; tourism is generating plenty of jobs and sustainable livelihood. Sikkim is now a global name.”
Today, Sikkim has the lowest number of Below Poverty Line families in India. The state’s per capita income of Rs 1,42,625 (2012-13) is way ahead of the national average, although the condition of the state finances is not very healthy. Sikkim remains a special category state, which means it has to depend on Central funds.
Chamling is fighting the Assembly election on the mantra of making everyone in Sikkim a crorepati. The chief minister has also claimed that within two-three years, he will make Sikkim the first state in the country to be debt-free.
“Now, everyone knows that among the smaller states, Sikkim is India’s best administered,” says SDF spokesman Bhim Dahal. “This was achieved by Chief Minister Chamling’s vision; the aim is to make the state financially secure.”
During his reign, Chamling has focussed on road connectivity, agriculture, horticulture and floriculture, and has promoted eco-friendly industries. He has also approved at least 25 hydel projects on the Teesta river, which has earned him the wrath of environmentalists.
“But the common people are happy under his rule; they have sustainable livelihood options,” says Rajesh Tamang, a young entrepreneur from Tadong in east Sikkim. “Because Chamling has gone on to boost rural development, his mass support is unparalleled.”
Chamling was a late entrant into politics. After completing his matriculation, he took to farming in his native village of Yangang, located not very far from the Sino-Indian border. Later, he became a government contractor and that is when he came into contact with politicians and bureaucrats. Chamling was 32 when he was first elected as the president of the Yangang Gram Panchayat in 1982. Three years later, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly on a Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) ticket and went on to become the MLA from Damthang in 1989.
Impressed by his credentials, SSP leader and the then CM, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, inducted Chamling into his Cabinet and entrusted him with important portfolios. In the course of time, Chamling became too big for his boots and had frequent runs-ins with Bhandari. Things came to a head in 1993, when Chamling broke off and formed the SDF. Riding on a wave of anti-incumbency against Bhandari, Chamling and his SDF stormed to power in 1994.
Tourism contributes the bulk of the GDP growth that Sikkim has witnessed in the past two decades. “The best thing I discovered in Sikkim is that there is a sense of peace, discipline and dedication in governance and society, which is absent in West Bengal,” says Shankar Roy, a tourist from Kolkata. “We are all proud of Jyoti Basu for his statesmanship. Sikkim should be proud of what Chamling has done.”
But all that glitters is not gold. Apart from criticism from green activists, the Opposition has labelled Chamling as a corrupt dictator. “It is true that Sikkim has seen development under him, but the credit goes to the people of Sikkim,” says state Congress unit chief AD Subba. “They have strived hard. Had he not been corrupt, there could have been more development. It is actually the Chamling family that is gaining the most.”
In fact, after wiping out the Opposition by winning all the 32 seats in the 2009 Assembly polls, Chamling got a major jolt when his close aide and MLA Prem Singh Tamang — better known as PS Golay — decided to part ways last year and form the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM).
Although a new party, the SKM and Golay are making inroads in the state. Supporting him is Bhandari, who had been the chief minister for 15 years before being dislodged by Chamling. Bhandari’s SSP is not contesting the Assembly polls and is supporting Golay. Could sweet revenge be in sight for Bhandari?
“No one in the government or the party (read SDF) can utter a word against Chamling and his family,” says Golay. “In Sikkim, everyone was feeling suffocated. Since we decided to be the voice of dissent, people are supporting us and I’m confident that they will vote for us.”
Chamling, who is also an avid writer and poet, is eyeing a new political record, but is there a chance that history might repeat itself in Sikkim?
Look at the parallels: It was in 1993 that Chamling formed the SDF; for more than a year, he built a wave against Bhandari and stormed to power in the 1994 Assembly polls. Golay left the SDF in 2013, and in the past one year, he has given a fillip to the anti-incumbency undercurrent against Chamling and is working overtime to unseat him.
But for that to happen, the SKM’s 26-year-old candidate Bikash Basnet has to defeat Chamling at Yangang, a very difficult task, but not impossible.
In Sikkim, many believe that Chamling is not Bhandari and Golay is not Chamling. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks who support Chamling are busy praying at monasteries to ensure that their chief minister breaks Basu’s record. Will divine intervention prove to be enough?