Interview: 'No Place in National Media, Graft, Dilution of Article 371F...Sikkim Has Lost its Sheen'

In power in Sikkim for 25 years, but wracked by defections, Sikkim Democratic Front finds itself with a lone MLA – Pawan Chamling – now. The party’s vice-president and former Lok Sabha MP from the state, Prem Das Rai, says not all is lost.

New Delhi: In the 2019 Sikkim assembly elections, the Sikkim Democratic Front lost to its challenger, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, by just two seats. The party that had ruled the Himalayan state for 25 years in a row under its leader Pawan Chamling became the main opposition. 

But thanks to the prevailing trend of MLAs jumping ship to join ruling alliances, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) was eventually depleted of all its strength in the 32-member assembly. So much so that today, only Chamling is left to represent his party in the house. 

With just one and a half years to go for the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) government to finish its first term in office under the chief ministership of Prem Singh Tamang Golay, SDF appears keen to be seen making a serious move to revive the party. 

This morning (November 28) Chamling began a statewide foot march – the Sikkimko Maato Bachauney Abhiyaan – or ‘save Sikkim initiative’.

SDF leader Prem Das Rai. Photo: By arrangement

The party’s vice-president and former Lok Sabha MP from the state, Prem Das Rai, tells The Wire of the objectives behind the initiative. Rai feels that the march will give SDF leaders an opportunity to interact with citizens and discover what needs to be done for them.

Excerpts from the interview, conducted over the telephone, are below.

The Save Sikkim Abhiyaan is starting in East Sikkim this morning. So how long will it last? 

In East Sikkim, the padyatra will be flagged off from Rongli. Then, it will go to West Sikkim, to the South and then to North Sikkim. It will continue till every district, town and village across the state is covered. We plan to wrap it up with a huge rally in Gangtok on March 4, the foundation day of our party. 

With this padyatra, we will be fulfilling a longstanding demand of the public, particularly in the villages, who want to see their leader, Pawan Chamling, and bless him. Youth from all sections of society are awaiting his arrival at their backyard. 

Sikkim will go to polls in 2024. Can we call the Abhiyaan a preparation for it by SDF? What is the primary objective behind it? 

The padyatra has been organised as an effort of outreach to all sections of our society, especially in the villages of Sikkim.

In the last three and a half years, the SKM government has systematically destroyed everything the state stood for. The spirit of our Article 371F and the special status to Sikkim under the Indian constitution has been diluted to the point that it is no longer recognisable.

Democratic rights of people have been snatched away and small sections are being bribed with vehicles and money. However, the political demands of the public have not been fulfilled. Just one question will sum it all up – how many times has the present chief minister met the prime minister and put forward the legitimate demands of the state at his doorstep?

We have many unfulfilled issues, like seats in the assembly for the Limbu and Tamang communities, Scheduled Tribe status for the 12 communities that are left out, tribal status for the state of Sikkim, getting the Karmapa to Sikkim and Rumtek monastery – his home – in particular, income tax relief under 26AAA if the IT Act for old settlers, and so on. 

Another reality check is the state of the roads, power and water distribution across Sikkim today.

All infrastructural assets are in shambles. Many small projects are stranded as funds have been diverted to mega projects to fulfil the demands of contractors, etc. from outside the state. You can say that the state of Sikkim has lost its sheen.

Unlike before, there is no mention of it in the national media anymore. A person, who was convicted for corruption, whose conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, was jailed for a year, and was then able to maneuver his way to the chief minister’s post is a red flag for the electoral process of India. Little wonder then, the state of corruption has reached untold proportions in Sikkim. He and his government will have to answer some very tough questions in future.

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In Sikkim, we are now witnessing rural distress like never before. The number of unemployed youth has doubled during the last few years, a serious challenge to tackle. The education system is badly hit by the pandemic and we don’t see any measures to address it. The list can go on. In terms of spending, the records show more than Rs 52,000 crores [was spent] over the last three and half years. But where that money has gone is the mystery. 

In the coming polls, our party will promise social justice, rural uplift and economic recovery to voters.

You and your party have been talking about the dilution of Article 371F of the constitution by the present government for some time now. How do you plan to substantiate that claim?

When it comes to the dilution of the basic spirit of Article 371 F, there are many examples.

However, let us take just one example, the implementation of One Nation One Ration Card scheme (ONORC) in Sikkim. This scheme is a direct encroachment on the old laws protected by 371F. The implementation of ONORC will certainly encourage the influx of migrants into the state which will drastically change the demography of our society.

Once ration cards are issued under ONORC, they will have the right to get their names entered in the electoral rolls. This will be against the rights and interest of the Sikkimese people. The state has the right to reject this scheme by simply adopting a resolution in the state assembly, and placing it before the central government for consideration. Unfortunately, it did not do so. So now, with its implementation, we will see a serious influx of people from other parts of the country.

Sikkim can ill afford to get its demographics endangered by such extensions. The spirit of 371 F has to be upheld and for this purpose, questions can be asked about any law. An example is the one law that we [the SDF] in our time kept in abeyance, the Central Companies Act.

The SKM government under Prem Singh Golay is directionless, lacks good governance and has failed Sikkim.

Though in the last assembly polls, SDF gave a good fight and nearly defeated SKM, almost all SDF MLAs have since jumped to other parties, including the BJP. Can we then assume that there will be new faces from SDF in the next elections?

SDF won the last assembly elections if you consider the total number of votes polled.

But distribution of votes ensured that SKM won the polls. Hence, we are out of government. However, with the defections from our party which was engineered by various political forces especially from outside, we lost all our MLAs except our party president and former chief minister of five consecutive terms, Pawan Chamling. 

Now, with these defections and many senior party leaders leaving for greener pastures, we have the opportunity of guiding the party in a new direction and culture. We have many younger leaders who have taken the leadership at various levels. So yes, we will see many new and young faces being fielded by the SDF party in 2024.

The post-2019 election time has been a good phase for our leader and the SDF party to introspect and move forward.

SDF leader Pawan Chamling with others. Photo: Twitter/@Komal_Chamling

What is clear from the Save Sikkim Abhiyaan of your party is that Pawan Chamling is its face. For a long time, outside of Sikkim too, Chamling had been the political face associated with the northeastern state for various initiatives of his government, like the Sikkim Organic Mission, etc. He is also known for being the country’s longest serving chief minister. But he was rejected in the 2019 assembly elections.

Do you think he is still the most credible face of Sikkim politics? 

By far, Mr. Chamling is the tallest leader, currently, in Sikkim.

He has earned credibility by taking Sikkim out of poverty and making it almost a poverty-free state. Sikkim is, and has been, a shining example of localisation of democratic rights and freedom. Thus Sikkimese voters who voted for parivartan [change] in 2019 have now realised that it is not enough to say we will change the government but rather to get a party into power that can deliver on promises. Politics is all about leadership, experience and statesmanship which is evident in Mr. Chamling.

The current SKM government has failed miserably on several counts. Unlike others, Mr. Chamling’s grassroots connect is exemplary and that is what is now being amplified by this Save Sikkim Abhiyaan which will result in giving succour to many Sikkmese who have been left out from the democratic and development benefits by this incumbent government. 

Sikkim wants real change and the security of the Sikkimese identity, and that is what SDF 2.0 is all about: naya avatar naya josh [‘A new avatar with renewed and youthful energy’].

You had created history of sorts by being the first IIT and IIM alumnus to be in the Lok Sabha in 2009. You were re-elected in 2014. But your party didn’t send you back to parliament in 2019. You are now the vice president of your party. What is your role in this Abhiyaan? Can we say you are the brain behind this idea?  

We are rebuilding the SDF party in Sikkim. After our party faced several challenges, it has been rebuilt brick by brick in a spirit of collective leadership. I am just one of those leaders. So this Abhiyaan has been designed by this collective.