Pawan Ku­mar Cham­ling re­cently achieved the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the long­est-serv­ing chief min­is­ter in the coun­try. While there’s no se­ri­ous threat to his po­si­tion, Cham­ling knows that he needs to be more cau­tious of both op­po­nents and al­lies than ever bef

India Today - - INSIDE - By Kaushik Deka

Pawan Ku­mar Cham­ling be­comes In­dia’s long­est serv­ing chief min­is­ter. A look at his po­lit­i­cal jour­ney

On the rainy evening of April 23, Sikkim chief min­is­ter Pawan Ku­mar Cham­ling was anx­iously wait­ing in the liv­ing room of his of­fi­cial res­i­dence in Gang­tok for a let­ter from the PWD de­part­ment. Two days ago, dur­ing his 32-day-long statewide visit, he had met a 32-year-old mother of three at Bermiok, West Sikkim. She had re­cently lost her hus­band, had no source of reg­u­lar in­come, and sought the CM’s help to find her a liveli­hood. Cham­ling, who trav­els with his en­tourage of min­is­ters and sec­re­taries dur­ing such mass con­nect pro­grammes, im­me­di­ately asked the PWD sec­re­tary to give her a job in his de­part­ment at a monthly salary of Rs 9,000. It was not just a politi­cian’s prom­ise to be for­got­ten later. He wanted to see the ap­point­ment let­ter.

It’s this mi­cro man­age­ment of gov­er­nance and di­rect con­nect with the peo­ple of the state that explains Cham­ling’s in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment of be­com­ing the long­est-serv­ing chief min­is­ter of the coun­try. On April 28, he eclipsed the record of Jy­oti Basu, who helmed the neigh­bour­ing West Ben­gal for 23 years and 137 days.

Cham­ling first be­came the chief min­is­ter on De­cem­ber 12, 1994, and since then has re­turned to power for a fifth con­sec­u­tive term. Ac­cord­ing to so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ob­servers, the leader of the Sikkim Demo­cratic Front doesn’t face any se­ri­ous threat to his chair. “He is the best op­tion as the Op­po­si­tion is too weak,” says Ko­mol Singha, head of the de­part­ment of eco­nomics, Sikkim Univer­sity. A weak op­po­si­tion alone, how­ever, can­not de­fine Cham­ling’s un­in­ter­rupted reign. De­spite al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and nepo­tism lev­elled against his gov­ern­ment by the main op­po­si­tion party, the Skkim Kran­tikari Mor­cha (SKM), formed mostly by rebels of the Sikkim Demo­cratic Front (SDF), Cham­ling has man­aged to keep his vote base in­tact, at least among the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion, which con­sti­tutes 75 per cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion.

Per­haps the 67-year-old CM, who came to power after re­belling against his for­mer men­tor and chief min­is­ter, Nar Ba­hadur Bhan­dari, knows how to keep rebels at bay him­self. In 1992, Cham­ling, then a mem­ber of Bhan­dari’s Sikkim San­gram Par­ishad (SSP), dra­mat­i­cally an­nounced his re­bel­lion against the CM by light­ing a can­dle in the assem­bly to search for democ­racy. Call­ing Bhan­dari an au­to­crat, he formed his own party, the SDF, mo­bilised pub­lic sup­port and seized power in the 1994 polls. He has

been care­ful not to al­low any­one to sully his im­age as a cham­pion of democ­racy—the day he formed his party he an­nounced that no mem­ber of his fam­ily would ever join pol­i­tics, and he has kept his word.

From 1994 to his death in 2009, Bhan­dari re­mained Cham­ling’s main po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent. The SDF’s elec­toral gains were un­prece­dented. In 2004, it won 31 of the state’s 32 seats and all in 2009. In 2014, the chal­lenge came from for­mer col­league and head of SKM, Prem Singh Ta­mang, bet­ter known as P.S. Go­lay, who tried to repli­cate what Cham­ling had done to Bhan­dari. A three­time MLA and a min­is­ter in Cham­ling’s cabi­net since 1994, Go­lay was con­sid­ered the sec­ond most pow­er­ful man after Cham­ling in the party.

The SKM won 10 ur­ban seats, but the SDF’s thrust on “de­vel­op­ment, peace and se­cu­rity” pre­vailed over SKM’s ris­ing call for pari­var­tan or change. Later, Cham­ling wooed seven of the 10 SKM MLAs to join the SDF, tak­ing his party’s tally to 29. What made the road ahead smoother for Cham­ling was that Go­lay was con­victed in a cor­rup­tion case dur­ing his ten­ure as a min­is­ter and has since been im­pris­oned. “The 2014 re­sults worked as a wake-up call. A lot of changes had to be fac­tored

Cham­ling’s big­gest critic in re­cent times has been the BJP. Its gen­eral sec­re­tary Ram Mad­hav calls the SDF ‘Sikkim Dic­ta­to­rial Front’

in and we are work­ing on those now,” says SDF Lok Sabha MP P.D. Rai.

Whether he gets a sixth term or not, there is una­nim­ity even among his crit­ics that Cham­ling has been re­warded by his vot­ers for bring­ing about un­prece­dented de­vel­op­ment in the state. As per data re­leased by the Union min­istry for sta­tis­tics and pro­gramme im­ple­men­ta­tion, Sikkim’s GDP growth has con­sis­tently been above the na­tional av­er­age and its per capita in­come is the third high­est among states— at Rs 2,10,394, it’s dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age of Rs 1,03,219. The pop­u­la­tion be­low the poverty line has come down to 8 per cent from over 40 per cent when Cham­ling took charge. “By 2020, we will have one-storeyed pucca house for all, we have al­most com­pleted 90 per cent of the work,” says Cham­ling.

His de­vel­op­ment model re­volves around ex­ploit­ing the nat­u­ral ad­van­tages of the state—agri­cul­ture and tourism. “The state’s agri­cul­ture be­came 100 per cent or­ganic in 2015. Sikkim has emerged as a ma­jor pro­ducer of car­damoms and the sec­ond largest pro­ducer of spices in the world,” says Pro­fes­sor Ajay Ch­hib­ber, for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary gen­eral for the Asia-Pa­cific, UN. The state has emerged as a ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tion, at­tracted huge in­vest­ment from the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try, earned self suf­fi­ciency in power gen­er­a­tion through hy­dro power and is con­sid­ered one of the best-man­aged small states in the coun­try. And un­like neigh­bour­ing north­east­ern states, Sikkim has re­mained peace­ful.

“There is no doubt that he is re­lent­less in his mis­sion to de­velop Sikkim. Un­like most politi­cians, he is flex­i­ble, quick to recog­nise his mis­takes and make amends. He reads a lot and keeps him­self abreast of global de­vel­op­ment mod­els,” says activist Tseten Lepcha, who has been at log­ger­heads with the CM. The will­ing­ness to ac­cept mis­takes was ev­i­dent when Cham­ling ad­mit­ted that his red car­pet to pharma com­pa­nies did not yield the de­sired re­sults in terms of gen­er­at­ing em­ploy­ment.

Crit­ics ar­gue that most of his schemes have been pop­ulist, but the num­bers re­flect that these schemes have helped in im­prov­ing so­cial in­di­ca­tors. The gov­ern­ment of­fers free med­i­cal treat­ment to all within the state. When a pa­tient is re­ferred to hos­pi­tals out­side the state, they get Rs 2 lakh as as­sis­tance from the gov­ern­ment. If the pa­tient be­longs to the

BPL cat­e­gory, the gov­ern­ment will bear the en­tire ex­pense. The state of­fers free ed­u­ca­tion till col­lege. There is also 30 per cent reser­va­tion for women in gov­ern­ment jobs and higher ed­u­ca­tion; 50 per cent seats are re­served for women in ur­ban lo­cal bod­ies and gram pan­chay­ats. “We can see a grow­ing num­ber of women in gov­ern­ment jobs,” says Dr Sand­hya Thapa, head of the so­ci­ol­ogy de­part­ment at Sikkim Univer­sity.

Ch­hib­ber counts sev­eral other achieve­ments—low­est fer­til­ity rate in the coun­try, 100 per cent elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and san­i­ta­tion and now a tar­get of 100 per cent lit­er­acy by the year­end. “The state has also out­per­formed the na­tional av­er­age on a broad range of so­cial pa­ram­e­ters as ev­i­denced in our anal­y­sis of the so­cial progress index. Apart from per­form­ing well on health and ed­u­ca­tion in­dices, Sikkim does an ex­cep­tional job of en­sur­ing per­sonal rights and safety,” says Amit Kapoor, chair­man of the In­sti­tute for Com­pet­i­tive­ness.

Em­pow­er­ment of the peo­ple through de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion and in­sti­tu­tional gov­er­nance has been one of the high­lights of Cham­ling’s ten­ure. As Rai explains, the slo­gan of the SDF has been to in­spire vil­lagers to take con­trol of their gov­er­nance. “He has es­tab­lished unique fo­rums of di­rect civic en­gage­ment that in­clude un­der­tak­ing walks through the state to lis­ten to peo­ple and ad­dress their con­cerns,” says Rai.

He has also cham­pi­oned de­cen­tralised gov­er­nance to en­sure that peo­ple in the re­motest parts have their de­mands met,” says A.K. Shiva Ku­mar, a de­vel­op­ment econ­o­mist who has helped the state gov­ern­ment pre­pare a hu­man de­vel­op­ment index. Since 1994, the SDF gov­ern­ment has in­tro­duced sev­eral leg­is­la­tions and amend­ments to strengthen grass­roots democ­racy, in­crease pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion in the de­ci­sion­making process, con­duct reg­u­lar elec­tions and main­tain ac­tiv­ity map­ping. “Cham­ling be­lieves that in the eth­ni­cally het­ero­ge­neous state, lo­cal gov­ern­ment can cre­ate non­vi­o­lent plat­forms for in­tereth­nic and in­ter­group dis­cus­sion re­lat­ing to lo­cal is­sues and al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources,” says Durga Prasad Chet­tri, who teaches po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Sikkim Univer­sity.

Main­te­nance of so­cial har­mony among the three ma­jor eth­nic groups— Nepali, Bhutia and Lepcha—has been one of the big­gest achieve­ments of Cham­ling. “Cham­ling, who comes from a mod­est Nepali back­ground, came to power on the slo­gan of Bhasha Na, Bhat (it’s not the lan­guage, but the food we share that mat­ters), and has been able to pro­vide lead­er­ship to di­verse sec­tions of so­ci­ety,” says Pro­fes­sor Man­ish, for­mer head of the de­part­ment of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Sikkim Univer­sity.

De­spite Cham­ling’s dom­i­nance over the so­cial and elec­toral land­scape of Sikkim, op­po­si­tion par­ties are not will­ing to give up with­out a fight. The SKM has al­leged that the gov­ern­ment has failed to pro­vide in­fra­struc­ture and bring in re­forms in the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, Congress state pres­i­dent Bharat Bas­nett al­leges that Cham­ling has di­luted pro­vi­sions of Ar­ti­cle 371 (F) meant to pro­tect the in­dige­nous peo­ple of Sikkim, that farm­ers are still us­ing chem­i­cal fer­tiliser smug­gled from West Ben­gal, and the CM is us­ing money and mus­cle power to win elec­tions. There has also been crit­i­cism over lack of in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment, es­pe­cially road con­nec­tiv­ity and pub­lic trans­port. Kapoor dis­misses such crit­i­cism, claim­ing that Sikkim has man­aged to build an ex­ten­sive net­work of roads with the length of na­tional high­ways in­creas­ing by more than five times since 2008 and the length of state high­ways in­creas­ing by more than four times dur­ing the same time pe­riod.

Cham­ling’s big­gest critic in re­cent times has been the BJP, its ally in the north­east and at the Cen­tre. BJP gen­eral sec­re­tary Ram Mad­hav has named Cham­ling’s party ‘Sikkim Dic­ta­to­rial Front’’. On his part, Cham­ling has sent out an in­di­rect warn­ing to his peo­ple: be­ware of com­mu­nally di­vi­sive par­ties. Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers, how­ever, don’t see any threat to his gov­ern­ment, ei­ther from the BJP or the Congress.

Mean­while, the let­ter from the PWD de­part­ment reached the chief min­is­ter’s home late in the evening. The woman has been ap­pointed with ef­fect from May 1.

Cham­ling joined poi­itics in 1985, and be­came the chief min­is­ter for the first time in 1994

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