- Pawan Chamling is camping in Delhi and meeting legal eagles to weigh his case against CM Prem Singh Tamang
- SKM has a wafer-thin majority with 17 seats in the 32-member Sikkim assembly. SDF has 15 MLAs
Can a person who served a year-long jail term be a chief minister in India? That is the question at the heart of a political drama unfolding in the Himalayan state of Sikkim, barely weeks after Pawan Chamling’s record run as chief minister was broken by his one-time protégée Prem Singh Tamang. Popularly known as P.S. Golay, Tamang became the chief minister after his party, the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), managed a wafer-thin majority with 17 seats in the 32-member Sikkim assembly. The Chamling-led Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) managed to win 15.
Tamang, 51, was sent to jail in 2017 after he was found guilty of misappropriating government funds worth Rs 9.5 lakh in a milch cow distribution scheme. He was minister of animal husbandry in Chamling’s cabinet when the scam took place between 1994 and 1999. The case against Tamang was initiated by Chamling’s predecessor, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who was the then opposition leader. The SDF pursued the case and Tamang was disqualified as member of the assembly after convicted by a trial court in 2016; in 2017 the Sikkim high court upheld the verdict. Tamang had held a grudge against Chamling since then for not protecting him. On his release from jail in August 2018, Tamang took Chamling head on.
But the plot has taken another turn with Chamling—who had served as the chief minister for five consecutive terms since 1993—looking for legal options to challenge Tamang’s elevation. Chamling is camping in Delhi along with other party leaders and meeting legal eagles to weigh their case, sources said. Under Representation of the People Act, 1951, a person convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, for more than six months cannot contest elections for six years. However, in 2015, the BJP government diluted the act which allowed Tamang’s coronation.
Chamling also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi last week, lending credence to the theory that SDF is trying to “isolate” Tamang politically. The Centre’s support is crucial for Chamling as both his SDF and Tamang’s SKM are allies of the BJP. The SDF is part of the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA). “We are exploring a number of options, but it’s too early comment on anything at the moment..,” Chamling told Outlook over phone from Delhi. “Maybe, we can discuss the issue (on the SDF’s strategies to pull down the Tamang government) sometimes next week…”
Also important in Chamling’s scheme of things are the impending by-elections for three assembly seats. “It’s politics that is at the centre of the issue and the by-elections…hold the key to whether Chamling and his SDF can make a comeback or Tamang manages to retain power?” said a Gangtok-based political analyst. Chamling, his former cabinet colleague D.T. Lepcha and the SKM’s Kunga Nima Lepcha all had won from two seats each. Each have already resigned from one seat each which will necessitate by-polls within six months. Tamang has a two-seat advantage over Chamling.
The baby-faced Tamang, however, can still remain CM for at least six months before he must contest and get elected to the assembly. Aware of the pitfalls ahead, sources said, Tamang is grooming his son, Aditya, to take on the responsibilities of CM if the need arises. Aditya is also a legislator in the assembly. “For the next six months, our chief minister will consolidate his position and ensure that the SKM government remains in power…it’s with the people’s mandate the SKM under the leadership of PS Golay has formed a new government in Sikkim…The people of Sikkim voted for ‘parivartan’ (change) and the SKM will bring that change. The SDF has to realise that it is in the opposition and should play a constructive role of an opposition party,” an SKM leader said.
Anjan Upadhayaya, political commentator and editor of Gangtok-based Nepali daily Hamro Khabar, said that “the results of the by-polls to the three assembly seats holds the key to whether Tamang’s SKM remains in power or the grand old SDF led by Chamling edges out the SKM…” Traditionally, ruling parties have won by-polls in the state.
Chamling is, meanwhile, sharpening his knife in the hope of finding the right time to go for the kill. Many say that it’s a matter of when and not if Chamling will stake claim to the throne from where he ruled the Himalayan state with an iron hand for 25 years.
The game is on.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta