Union minister of state for youth affairs and sports Kiren Rijiju with Sikkim CM PS Golay and his team of ministers and BJP candidates ahead of by-elections in the state

A lot happened this October in Sikkim. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates won Assembly elections for the first time in the state. Former CM Pawan Chamling’s party suffered a heavy loss from its stronghold, Poklok Kamrang, confirming that Mr Chamling will remain the lone opposition leader in the State Assembly. What was also confirmed was that PS Tamang [Golay] will remain the chief minister of Sikkim after he contested and won the by-election. And, of course, what could be more dramatic than the current CM winning from the former CM’s homeground.

Let’s start with BJP in Sikkim. While many might feel that Golay’s win in Poklok-Kamrang, where he got over 85% of the votes cast, is the bigger story, I believe BJP’s “elected” entry into the state legislature to be more significant. A party that has been continuously losing deposits in elections held in Sikkim so far, including this year’s April elections, now has 12 MLAs [two elected and 10 switchovers from SDF]. BJP would have been the main opposition in the state but for its pre-bypoll seat-sharing alliance with SKM. However, it is not yet clear what this alliance means now that the elections are over. The BJP has some heavyweight leaders who switched over from the SDF and who would expect to be given important portfolios in what they must be hoping is now an alliance government.

However, if one were to take seriously some of the recent statements made by SKM and BJP, these could very well be rumblings of a possible discord in the alliance. In the evening of the by-poll results, SKM spokesperson Jacob Khaling had said in a press meet that the 10 BJP legislators [switchovers from SDF] will not be accommodated on the treasury bench. The next day, BJP state unit president DB Chauhan said that BJP will treat all its 12 MLAs equally.

Another twist was added to the SKM-BJP tale when the Assembly convened on November 11 to swear in the CM as an MLA along with the two BJP MLAs. The Speaker informed the House that the “documentation” submitted by the 12 former SDF MLAs claiming new identities in the Assembly were not completely in order hence they could not yet be recognised as BJP [10] and SKM [02] MLAs. Interestingly, the two SKM MLAs here are those who had switched over from SDF after they claimed that their conscience did not allow them to join BJP as the other ten were planning to.

Much can be read into a comment included by the chief minister in his recent address in the Assembly. History, he claimed, had been made in Sikkim because a ruling party [SKM] had helped Opposition MLAs [BJP] get elected. If this is how the SKM president sees the seat-sharing alliance, then as far as he is concerned, the SKM-BJP relationship is quite clear – that of ruling and opposition. There was much speculation about where this alliance was headed, and his comment needs to be seen in that context. This is not necessarily what the BJP believed the alliance to be.

After SKM announced its seat-sharing arrangement with BJP, the very next day, a Sunday, the Election Commission of India announced that it had relaxed the disqualification period of PS Tamang allowing him to contest the by-election. The ECI’s announcement came a day before the last day for filling nominations. Three constituencies were going to poll, and SKM gave two of them to BJP retaining only one, Poklok Kamrang, for its president. In return, PS Tamang got to contest elections and remain the chief minister of Sikkim.

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In all this, it is the ECI’s role that has not attracted as much noise as it should have in the state. In the recent past, there has been several cases across the country where questions have been raised about the ECI’s independence and this time the Sikkim by-polls have raised similar questions given the timing of the relaxation granted to Mr Tamang which opens the doors for much speculation.

But, BJP is finally here.

How did they get here?

Less than a month after the April elections, 10 SDF MLAs joined BJP. Just before the October by-polls, SKM’s Sonam Venchungpa joined BJP in order to contest the by-polls from Martam-Rumtek constituency. He had lost the April elections to SDF’s DT Lepcha by just 73 votes so he was always expected to win now that his party was in government.

In Gangtok constituency, where anti-BJP feelings were the strongest, more people voted against BJP however the votes got divided amongst five other candidates resulting in a win for BJP’s YT Lepcha. The five other candidates collectively polled 1000 more votes than the winning candidate. One must also factor in the low voter turn-out in the Gangtok by-polls where in April, 62% had turned up for voting as compared to the 52% voter turn-out in October. The low turn-out could be accrued to the discontent among voters including SKM supporters over their constituency being handed over to a party which till now had no currency in the state.

That the people were not happy with the SKM-BJP seat sharing in Gangtok is evident from the fact that other candidates, who had contested the April elections as well, got far more votes this time. Delay Namgyal Barfungpa who had polled around 90 votes from Gangtok in April, became the runner-up this time with around 1,400 votes. However, all said and done, with 2,500 votes Mr Lepcha is now representing a constituency of 12,000 voters.

None of these can be considered wins, but win BJP has. With this in mind, people of Sikkim now need to ponder over what BJP intends to do with its 12 MLAs in the State Assembly; warming the Opposition bench is clearly not what the 10 MLAs had in mind since they could have done that wearing SDF colours as well.

(Tshering Eden is a features editor with Summit Times, an English daily newspaper from Sikkim. Views expressed are the author’s own)

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