Saturday, September 13, 2014

Potboiler bye-election


One would never have anticipated the kind of heated and intense, and occasionally bitter campaign that a seemingly innocuous bye-election has thrown up. The poll-bound constituency of Rangang-Yangang in South Sikkim has become a throwback to Assembly Elections 2014 which was a bitter and violent affair between the SDF and the SKM, the kind that Sikkim had not seen in decades. The ruling front is clearly fighting for prestige here having already secured a comfortable majority of 21 seats in the 32 seat Assembly. The constituency being the home of Chief Minister Pawan Chamling, the SDF party is going full throttle and has deployed the entire arsenal at its disposal to ensure that this home constituency is in comfortably retained in their pocket in the face of what is building up to be stiff opposition independent candidate RN Chamling, the brother of the Chief Minister, and high stakes campaigning by the BJP for its SKM backed candidate.
A bye-election in Sikkim is rarely much news, at least it never has been. However the changing political landscape here has made even a single seat bye-election a contest. The Chief Minister along with all his cabinet colleagues camped long at Rangang Yangang for several days overseeing the campaign. The seat had earlier been won by Mr. Chamling who relinquished it after he also won and retained the Namchi-Singhithang seat. This would have been a walk-over at any other time, but the kind of campaigning and deployment of manpower at ‘ground zero’ is an indication of how important this solitary seat has become to all political players. The SDF president has reportedly directed all his Cabinet colleagues, MLAs, former Ministers and chairpersons to put in their bit and campaign in Rangang-Yangang.
The constituency has probably never seen so much political activity, perhaps not even during the general elections in April. The ruling party has already lost 14 sitting panchayats who have joined hands with the independent candidate, RN Chamling. While such crossovers were also seen in the run-up to the general elections, at that time, government formation was at stake and unknown. At present, even if SDF loses at Rangang-Yangang, its stay in office is not disturbed, and this throws up interesting interpretations to what the scale of contest being presented here suggests.
Another worrying factor for the SDF is the personal nature of this contest with the now open hostilities between the Chamlings.
That the brother of a four-term CM can contest as an Independent is a sure indicator of changing political possibilities and attitudes of the people towards politics and politicians in Sikkim. The bitter struggle from his home grown contender has left the SDF president infuriated as has been obvious in the tone of his campaign speeches. There were clear appeals and obvious warnings in speeches made in three rounds of campaigning in the constituency.
While many would say it is a two-way fight – between the SDF candidate Kuamri Thapa and the Independent RN Chamling - let’s not forget the BJP candidate, Bikash Basnett, who wore the SKM colours in the constituency in April when he polled a respectable 3,202 votes. His campaign has the SKM backing it full tilt and the BJP bringing in some national leaders to convey commitment.
All ten SKM MLAs are also camped in the constituency in support of their former colleague and now BJP candidate. They have also been denouncing what they see as vicious statements being made by the CM and protested against threats of “development” being denied if the constituency switches sides.
“What does the Chief Minister want to prove by saying that if the SDF candidate loses the bye-election then it is not the party but the people of that constituency who will be the losers? If the people of Rangang Yangang constituency are not satisfied with the SDF government and they want to question and challenge the ruling party, they have every right to do that. What is so sacrosanct about it that the people of Sikkim should identify themselves with the SDF party just because the latter is in power?” SKM leaders have stated in a press statement.  
The BJP may be seen by most as having only an outside chance in the bigger battle at Rangang-Yangang, but it is the scale of this very contest which might work in its favour. Also boosted by the Modi-wave and absolute majority in Parliament, the NE incharge, P Rauth, in his campaign speeches here has lashed out against the Chief Minister using some strong language and displaying open hostility clearly buoyed by the alliance it has with SKM and the confidence of the history-making rout at the national level.
At the end of the day, the battle really might turn out to be limited to the leaders and their immediate circle of supporters, with the around 11,000 electors having already made up their mind. The turnout on the day of the election, 13 September, will be an indicator of the mood and 16 September will reveal their verdict. In April, the constituency registered an 85% turnout [against Sikkim’s average of 80.80% turnout] with 9,976 of the 11,762 registered electors casting their votes. Can Kumari Manger match the performance of the CM, or in the light of this being a bye-election, even improve on the vote-share? Can Bikash Basnet better his performance or will the brother walk away with the constituency thus reducing SDF to 21 seats in the Assembly and giving Sikkim an independent MLA after decades. The answer, on 16 September, the day of counting.

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