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Aditi Phadnis: A state of stability

PLAIN POLITICS

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

The applause in the Ashok Hotel Convention Hall was deafening and lasted a full four minutes, as Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling walked up to the stage to receive an India Today award for the best performer among small states in education.
It was loudest from the corner of the hall where a team of 25 from Sikkim, in Delhi especially for the event, had begun gathering from early in the morning. This had many in the politically sophisticated audience smiling.
In these days of doom and gloom stories from the north east "" Manipur and Nagaland among them "" it was heartening to hear some good news from the region. Sikkim is good news and Chamling "" chief minister for 10 years and starting his third five-year term "" never ceased to remind the audience about this.
It is not the older north-eastern states like Assam, with well-developed development infrastructure, that are topping the best-run states chart. It is smaller, newer states. Even among these, it is not Meghalaya (the most peace-loving of the Seven Sisters) but Sikkim and Mizoram that are walking away with honours.
According to the India Today study, Sikkim's per capita spending on primary and middle-level education is the highest among all the states "" big or small. Although it is geographically more inaccessible than Assam, Sikkim provides 70 per cent of its households with tap water "" compared to 9 per cent households in Assam.
The study points out that this has been achieved in a timespan of 10 years. This coincides with the period Pawan Chamling has been in power. Sikkim's other assets are: its compactness, water resources, ecotourism, Danny Denzongpa and Baichung Bhutia, in that order, as Chamling pointed out in a chat.
Despite being so small, Sikkim is among the most politically stable states in the north east. Possibly because of this stability, it had a growth rate of 8.3 per cent in the Ninth Plan, one of the highest in the country.
It has a per capita income that is the tenth highest in the country, a per capita plan outlay that is the third highest, plan expenditure on the social sector fourth highest, and a gross fiscal deficit that is the fourth lowest.
What makes Chamling Sikkim's longest reigning chief minister? Actually, he owes his political origins to discredited Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) chief Narbahadur Bhandari. And there hangs a story.
Chamling belongs to an agriculturist family and admits he wanted to study but couldn't afford to. He joined the police as a clerk but because he is also a poet (he has authored around 20 volumes of poetry and is intensely proud of his publishing house, Nirman Prakashan), he got swayed by the political protest movements in Sikkim that sought that country's merger with India in 1975.
It is hard to tell who the villains were in the annexation of Sikkim and who the heroes were. The way the first Dewan of Sikkim, John Lall (ICS), tells it, instead of honouring Sikkim's sovereignty and China's feelings, India imported mobs of Nepali-speaking people from Darjeeling and Kalimpong, told the Chogyal (King) that his people had rebelled against him and annexed Sikkim.
Chamling however, says (possibly because he's a Nepali-speaking native of Sikkim) that the original Lepcha settlers of Sikkim who were subjugated three centuries by Bhotia tribals from across Tibet perpetuated feudal systems and denied other tribals like Limbus and Tamangs, equal rights.
According to Chamling, the rebellion against the Chogyal was actually a revolution that overthrew oppressive Qazi rule and radicalised scores of young men across Sikkim.
Among them was Narbahadur Bhandari who went on to become chief minister. When Chamling won his Assembly seat, Damthang, by polling 96.6 per cent of the vote in the 1989 Assembly elections, Bhandari sought to coopt Chamling by making him a minister in the state government. However, Chamling had other ambitions.
After two-and-a-half years of ministership, he quit the Bhandari government in 1993. The government was mired in cases of financial misappropriation. But it also had 30 out of 32 MLAs in the assembly.
In March 1993, when the Bhandari government was out to get himfor alleged political trechery, Chamling formed a new regional party, the Sikkim Democratic Front. In the 1994 assembly elections, the SDF got 19 out of 32 seats. In 1999, it got 25 seats out of 32 and in elections in May this year, it got 31 out of 32 seats in the Sikkim Assembly.
Chamling's political tactics are a lot like V P Singh's. Just as V P Singh sought to create a new constituency for himself out of Other Backward Castes (OBC) by using the Mandal Commission recommendations, Chamling fought for and won a struggle to extend reservations to castes like Limbus and Tamangs.
In Sikkim, 20 per cent of the population is Bhutia-Lepcha and 40 per cent comprises Other Backward Castes including Newars a caste engaged in business. Limbus, Rais and Tamangs are around 20 per cent of the population. When they were included in the reservation net, they became Chamling's natural constituency.
With the politics of staying in power in the bag, Chamling used part of his second and third term to consolidate governance. He is proud of Sikkim's economic development but what is most valuable is Sikkim's emotional integration with India.
Danny Denzongpa and Baichung Bhutia have contributed a lot to this process. The rest has come from trying to give development a regional focus, incorporating Nepal, Bhutan and north Bengal in a growth triangle.
Revenue generation is the buzzword for the state government that claims it has simple, eco-friendly efficient development models that includes heavy emphasis on panchayats.
Chamling expects the new trade link with China through Nathu La to deliver more development to Sikkim. A super express highway linking Calcutta to Gangtok "" and maybe even via Nathula to Lhasa "" and an airport could alter the fortunes of Sikkim and north Bengal.
Chamling's entire efforts are aimed at realising this objective. If this happens in the next five years, he could be looking at chief ministership for another five.

First Published: Sat, August 14 2004. 00:00 IST
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