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August 5, 1999


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Congress may tie up with SSP to take on SDF in Sikkim

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Speculation of a political realignment is rife as electioneering gains momentum in the Himalayan state.

Sikkim is scheduled to go in for simultaneous polls for its lone Lok Sabha and 32 assembly constituencies on October 3. Major political players in the state, the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front, the main opposition Sikkim Sangram Parishad and the Congress, are treading cautiously over the announcement of party candidates.

With the possibility of a pre-poll alliance between the SSP and Congress gaining ground, several possibilities in the political mosaic of this tiny eastern Himalayan state have been thrown wide open. The strategic border state is certainly poised to witness drastic political changes in the ensuing elections, for which poll preparation is in full swing.

The revised electoral roll gives a figure of 2,52,078 votes, including 1,30,808 males and 1,21,270 females, an increase of 18,133 new voters.

The ensuing election may as well be an acid-test for both chief minister and SDF president Pawan Chamling and his arch-rival, former chief minister and opposition SSP chief Nar Bahadur Bhandari. For the SSP chief, who had held the reigns of the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom for over 14 years after its merger with the Indian Union in 1975, this could possibly be the last chance to stage a comeback while for the incumbent chief minister, it is definitely going to be an acid test.

Chamling is faced with the tough proposition of selecting party candidates or what he calls "winning horses". Simmering dissension within the party has forced him to leave the dumping of incumbent MLAs and ministers on hold till election notification is issued on September 7. Though the SDF chief has publicly indicated that he intends to infuse some new faces in the ensuing election, choosing new candidates will certainly be tough for the SDF chief, say political analysts.

The SDF chief will only announce the party's list after feeling the mood of lower-level party workers. The only clear indication the chief minister has given is that he would be renominating sitting MP, Bhim Dahal for the state's lone Lok Sabha seat.

Political analysts say there is a strong possibility of the opposition SSP and Congress forging a "seat-sharing" alliance in the assembly polls. The SSP has reportedly announced its first list of candidates for only 22 constituencies, and may leave the national party to contest the state's lone Lok Sabha seat and the remaining 12 assembly constituencies. Such a pre-poll alliance could upset the ruling SDF's apple-cart, feel analysts.

However, neither the SSP nor the state Congress leadership has come out publicly on the issue. The Sikkim Pradesh Congress Committee chief and state's lone Rajya Sabha member, Karma Topden says, "The Congress's doors are open for any such alliance."

Party insiders, however, maintain that the Congress may only field candidates for 12 seats with a seat sharing understanding with SPP on the basis of 22-12 seats, provided that the Himalayan state's lone Lok Sabha seat is left for the national party to contest.

Incidentally, the Congress has never come to power in the state by winning elections, though it became a part of the government through the 'back-door' on three occasions by aligning with ruling regional parties in the past.

The state had been witnessing a flurry of political activities, ever since Chamling made known his willingness to go in for a "snap" poll in November last year. The Congress, which had been in doldrums in the Himalayan state for the past several years, had suddenly woken up to launch its 'revival' campaign with a "missionary" zeal late last year. The AICC appointed Assam MP from Tezpur in the dissolved Lok Sabha and lottery baron Mani Kumar Subba, as party observer in Sikkim. Subba's appointment has boosted the party's prospects in the state, feels the state Congress leadership. AICC president Sonia Gandhi's maiden visit to the state in June this year also came as a shot in the arm for the party. Many believe the SSP chief's visit to Delhi last month was to forge an electoral alliance with the Congress in Sikkim. What transpired between the AICC leadership and Bhandari is not known.

All the three main players in the Sikkimese political arena, have already gone campaign mode. They have busied themselves, holding campaign rallies, mostly concentrating in the far-flung areas. Apart from the SSP, which has already announced candidates for 22 seats, the ruling SDF and the Congress are yet to announce their respective candidates' list.

The Himalayan state, which is about to witness its fifth assembly polls since its merger with the Indian Union in 1975, has a 32-member house of which 12 seats reserved for its tribal Bhutia-Lepcha communities while two seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and one for its unique Buddhist monastic seat called the 'Sangha'. The remaining 17 are general seats.

Meanwhile, Bhandari has made it public that he would contest the assembly polls from two constituencies this time. They are his home constituency Soreng in West Sikkim and Rhenock in East Sikkim. The SSP chief says the SSP is ready to face the Sikkimese electorate.

In 1994, the SDF had won 19 seats, a majority of them coming from south Sikkim, where it had swept all the seven assembly seats. In west Sikkim, it had managed to win six of the nine seats. The two districts are dominated by Other Backward Classes of the majority Nepalese community. The ruling SDF is considered to be a party of the OBCs. The opposition SSP has its support base with the upper caste ethnic Nepalese and a section of the state's tribal minority. Traditionally the state's tribal Bhutia and Lepcha support the Congress.

The SSP, on the other hand, drew its strength from east Sikkim. There it had managed to retain only 10 seats, mostly in the ethnic upper caste Nepalese dominated district of east Sikkim, including six tribal reserved seats. The Congress had won two seats, and the remaining one was bagged by an independent candidate. The subsequent crossover of six of his tribal Bhutia-Lepcha legislators sounded the death knell for the SSP's sinking ship in 1994. The ruling SDF today has 25 legislators in the 32-member house.

The SDF, contesting in all 32 assembly seats, had secured 42 per cent of the total 82 per cent of the votes polled in the 1994 assembly elections. The SSP, which also had fielded 32 candidates, had polled 35.17 per cent while, the Congress, contesting in 31 seats managed to poll 15 per cent of the polled votes. The Congress won only two seats.

The recent spurt of frequent clashes between the ruling SDF and the opposition SSP is an indicator of the close fight for supremacy this time round.


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