There is nothing really new about legislators switching allegiances in our country and Sikkim is no different. Since the very dawn of political parties and elections in this erstwhile Himalayan kingdom, leaders have changed sides to suit their interests and the Sikkimese people have been quick to forgive and forget.
As early as 1953, after the elections to the 18-member state council (12 of whom were elected and six appointed by the Chogyal), five councillors of Sikkim state Congress rebelled against the party and joined the council/government. Prior to the election, they had said that they would not join the council even if they won the election.
Sikkim’s first chief minister, Kazi Lhendup Dorji, and his party, Sikkim National Congress, ran the whole gamut of pouring into national parties and first merged with Indian National Congress after the merger of Sikkim with the Indian Union, then with Janata Party when it came to power at the Centre in 1977 and again went back to Indian National Congress when it regained power at the Centre in 1979.
So, when 10 Sikkim Democratic Front legislators joined Bharatiya Janata Party on Aug 14, it came as a shock, yes; but surprise? Not really.
There had been chatter for a while after the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) formed the government on May 14 earlier this year that a group of SDF MLAs were planning to join BJP which has emerged as the most powerful political force in the country. That they would go ahead with that plan became more apparent after two SDF legislators decided to go against the party’s decision to boycott the Budget session under the new SKM government.
One of the two MLAs, GT Dhungel, is reported to have justified their decision to attend the session by confirming this chatter and stating that they did not want to join BJP. The two MLAs eventually joined SKM a day after the SDF MLAs joined BJP and cleared them from attracting disqualification under the anti-defection laws.
What is surprising though is the speed with which SDF, a party that ruled the state for 25 years, disintegrated barely two months since losing the 2019 election, an election where despite the fewer number of seats, it had the highest vote share. And this is perhaps the reason why many voters in the state are condemning the defection. It happened too early.
In 2015, a year and a half after the 2014 election, seven SKM legislators switched to the then ruling SDF. Then too, the defecting leaders were criticised, but not as forcefully. If views expressed on social media are any indication, this time public outrage against the SDF MLAs defecting to BJP is widespread and vociferous. This could be explained to the voters’ outright rejection of BJP in the 2019 elections in which the party received less than 2% of the votes polled. And now because of the defections, BJP has 10 MLAs in the Assembly. Another reason behind the public outrage could be BJP’s nationalistic agenda that does not really sit well with the special status that Sikkim enjoys.
There is also the fact that the Sikkimese voters have been witness to such mass defections after two consecutive elections. A widespread view on the streets also seems to be that the defection came too early and not that the defection itself was wrong.
The mass defection also triggered a youth collective, Sikkim Progressive Youth Forum to call for a protest rally on Sunday demanding the resignation of 12 MLAs who have switched parties. While many supported the rally on social media, there weren’t many on the road. Rumours were also afloat that SKM had sent out a directive to its workers and supporters not to attend the rally.
The way the two regional parties, SKM and SDF, are reacting to the defection is a clear indication of the fear that BJP commands. While SKM has targeted its condemnation only at the disloyalty of the SDF MLAs to their own party, SDF has remained largely silent only saying that the party will comment after consulting party workers and leaders. It is not just political parties in Sikkim, but the common man too is afraid of what lies ahead.
Also Read: India: A fractured nation, divided polity
The timing could not have been worse. BJP became the main opposition in the state Assembly shortly after Article 370 was abrogated by Delhi. Already apprehensive, it only deepened fears about the fate of Article 371F that provides special status to Sikkim. While SKM has and is trying hard to reassure Sikkimese that no harm will come to Article 371F, the en bloc defection does not really encourage the public to trust politicians or political parties.
The ethics or the lack of it aside, the SDF MLAs’ defection becomes all the more pertinent and worrisome because of the party they have defected to. Since SDF came to power in 1994, national parties had failed to play any significant role in the state’s politics. It is ironic that leaders of the same party have now given birth to BJP in Sikkim’s Legislative Assembly.
Prior to SDF and its president, Pawan Kumar Chamling’s rise, it was Sikkim Janta Parishad (SJP) [later Sikkim Sangram Parishad] that held power from 1979 to 1994 and saw a string of mergers and defections, starting in its first term, 1979-84 itself.
Led by the charismatic Nar Bahadur Bhandari, SJP won 16 seats in the 32-member Sikkim Legislative Assembly. It received the support of an Independent MLA to secure a simple majority of 17 and formed the government. The Congress held a strong Centre at the time and in 1981, Bhandari merged SJP into the Congress and Sikkim got a Congress government through merger again [LD Kazi also having done the same in the previous term].
The SJP-Congress merger was, however, not the only political maneuvering of the term. By the time the term drew to a close, Congress, which had no elected MLA in the House and had only acquired them through defections and merger, saw its numbers swell to 26. Some MLAs at the time moved through three parties to arrive in power.
This experience did not however end well for Bhandari and the Congress high-command removed him from office towards the end of the term. The suspicion with which regional parties look at national parties stems from this episode. The Congress misadventure failed because its government was reduced to a minority following mass defections which followed Bhandari out of the party.
For now, it would be interesting to see how SKM, which had attempted to forge an alliance with BJP prior to the election and continues to project itself as a staunch BJP supporter, handles issues of local protection without upsetting the Centre. ‘One Country, One Law’ has always been a core BJP belief and special status to states is anathema to that. Also interesting is the fact that Sikkim now has BJP in the opposition and a BJP ally in power. Whether that will be good or bad for Sikkim and its people, only time will tell.
(Tshering Eden is a features editor with Summit Times, an English daily newspaper from Sikkim. Views expressed are the author’s own)