In May 2014, Pawan Chamling was sworn in as Sikkim chief minister for a record fifth consecutive time.
A farmer-turner-policeman-turned politician, 69-year-old Chamling was at the helm of the erstwhile kingdom tucked away in the eastern Himalayas since December 1994, when he led his party— Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) — to dethrone his former mentor-turned-foe Nar Bahadur Bhandari.
On April 29, 2018, Chamling created history, becoming the longest-serving chief minister in the country when he bettered the record set by late Jyoti Basu, who was at the helm of the Left Front government in Bengal for an uninterrupted 23 years, by four months and 16 days.
Chamling’s “invincibility” was put to test on April 11, 2019 when the Himalayan state went for simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
Chamling’s record-winning streak received a severe jolt on May 23, 2019, with the opposition Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) bagging 17 seats out of the 32-member Sikkim Assembly as well as the lone Lok Sabha seat, ending Chamling’s reign of more than quarter of a century of lording over the tiny Himalayan state.
Chamling has been relegated from a “king” to a commoner with his party managing only to retain 15 seats, giving the SKM a chance to form a new government and a change of guard in the state.
“It will usher in a new political era in a state, which has been ruled by one family, that of the longest-serving chief minister — Pawan Chamling — whose family over the last quarter of a century, has cornered the entire business landscape of Sikkim from running cable TV channels, five star hotel, resorts, multi-brand showrooms, casino, and even providing transport to the slew of multination pharma firms that have set up base in the state,” a youngster, who voted for a “parivartan” in the election and who does not want to be named, told Outlook.
Nar Bahadur Bhandari, who led the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP), was at the helm of the newly-minted state —the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom had merged with India in 1975 — for more than 15 years, before being ousted by Chamling, his former cabinet colleague.
Until 1975, Sikkim, nestled in the Himalayas and which shares a border with Nepal, China and Bhutan, was a Protectorate, governed by a monarchy which was more than 300 years old and whose territory once reached into the Chumbi Valley of Tibet.
Chamling over the last quarter century had nurtured a profile for himself as one free from the clutches of any national political party, keeping intact the political narrative of the erstwhile kingdom’s history as reasons to keep a distance from national parties.
Though the people of Sikkim joined India by voting overwhelmingly for abolishing monarchy in 1975, no national party has ever made its presence convincingly felt in the mountain state.
In 2014 what had jolted Chamling and his party -- which enjoyed an absolute majority with all the 32 assembly seats in its kitty in the 2009 state election -- was losing 10 seats in the assembly polls to the state’s main opposition party, a fledgling SKM led by his one-time lieutenant and firebrand youth leader Prem Singh Golay — popularly known as PS Golay.
What Chamling failed to see this time round, was the groundswell of discontent among the people of Sikkim, specially the youth, says Anjan Upadhyaya, editor of leading Nepali daily in the state Hamro Prajashakti.
“Chamling failed to see the writing on the wall about the simmering discontent among the people of Sikkim, living in a make-believe world of his own ‘invincibility’…The so-called Chamling magic or mantra whatever it was that worked for the last quarter of a century, was on the wane,” Upadhyaya told Outlook.
The other opposition party is the newly-founded Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP) launched by former India football captain Bhaichung Bhutia and sports icon in June 2018.
“Despite announcing a slew of electoral sops, Chamling’s promised rural economic welfare of spending 70 per cent of the state’s budgetary allotment in rural Sikkim, did not reach the intended beneficiaries, but was instead pilfered in between.
“In a move to woo the youth, Chamling — before the election code of conduct came into force — recruited more than 12,000 men and women in government jobs and announced a decision to appoint 8,000 more under the state government’s ‘one family one job scheme’,” said Upadhyaya.
The slew of economic sops, however, failed to cut much ice with the rural voters in South and West Sikkim district — the pocket-boroughs of Chamling, a self-educated farmer’s son, who dabbles in literature, poetry and goes by his nom de plume as “Kiran” — where the SDF suffered most of its losses.
Taking the loss in its stride, SDF party spokesperson and former Sikkim assembly speaker KT Gyaltsen, says the SDF respects the peoples’ mandate, which is good and the party is now looking forward to working as a constructive and responsible opposition in the state.
“Under the able leadership of Pawan Chamling, who was the longest serving chief minister in the country until now, the SDF has ruled the state for 25 years and performed well…
“We respect the peoples’ mandate and thank the people of Sikkim for their support and will sit in the opposition and continue to serve for the interest of people of the state as a constructive and positive opposition party…,” Gyaltsen told Outlook on phone from state capital Gangtok.
Apart from the economic mismanagement, there was strong anti-incumbency factor against the ruling party, particularly in the rural belt —a constituency that Chamling takes credit for having nurtured over the last three decades, says Upadhyaya.
The SDF supremo’s popularity too has taken a beating, though he has won from both Polok Kamrang and Namchi Singithang in South Sikkim, his home turf. Chamling has won from Namchi Singithang for eight straight terms since he first contested the assembly polls in the state in 1985.
Who will be the next chief minister?
What most people in Sikkim are waiting to see, is who will become the new chief minister as Golay, who formed the SKM in 2013 after breaking away from the SDF, was barred from contesting any elections for six years following his imprisonment in a corruption case.
The SKM bagged the magic number of 17 — the majority mark in the 32-member Sikkim assembly. The main contenders for the post of the chief minister are: Golay’s son, Aditya, 28, who was elected from the Soreng Chakung seat in West Sikkim; SKM acting president Kunga Nima Lepcha, who won from both the seats he contested; Bedu Singh Panth, a former deputy speaker in the Bhandari-led SSP government and a two-time SDF legislator who later joined the SKM and Mani Kumar Sharma, a Siliguri-based dermatologist.
“The legislative party will decide who the chief minister will be…,” a senior SKM leader, who does not want to be named, told Outlook from Gangtok.
There is however a hitch. While the SKM has won 17 seats, the SDF has won 15. Apart from Chamling, there are two other candidates who had contested from two seats and won both, they include Chamling’s former cabinet colleague DT Lepcha and SKM’s acting president Kunga Nima Lepcha.
The three will have to resign from one seat each and that will necessitate by-elections in the three seats.
The SKM’s Indra Hang Limboo won the state’s lone Lok Sabha seat.
Bhaichung Bhutia’s Hamro Sikkim Party — which contested from 12 seats drew a blank.
Whether Chamling can turn the political clock back, only time can tell.