Ethnic divide creates new poll equations in Sikkim

Published on Apr 05, 2004 08:57 PM IST

Ethnic polarisation is opening up new poll equations in Sikkim ahead of the assembly and parliamentary elections next month.

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PTI | ByIndo-Asian News Service, Gangtok

Ethnic polarisation is opening up new poll equations in the northeastern state of Sikkim ahead of the simultaneous assembly and parliamentary elections next month.

The frontier state, with a little more than half a million people, goes to the polls to elect a 32-member state assembly and a lone parliamentarian May 10.

The battle lines are drawn, with the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) led by Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling taking on the Congress for political supremacy in the Himalayan state.

In the present state assembly, the Congress has just one legislator in its party president Nar Bahadur Bhandari.

But the political equations in Sikkim have changed drastically in recent months, with the Congress managing to enlist the support of the two influential ethnic communities - the Bhutias and the Lepchas.

The support of the indigenous Bhutias and Lepchas, with a population of about 100,000, is crucial to any contender in forming the next government in the state.

"Sikkim's electoral history since the state's merger with India in 1974 indicates that whichever party enjoys the support of the Bhutia and the Lepcha communities wins the elections. This time too the situation is no different," Tseten Tashi Bhutia, a Bhutia community leader, told IANS.

Bhutia had won the last elections on the SDF ticket but he has since switched loyalties and joined the Congress last fortnight. He is contesting the May 10 assembly poll on the Congress ticket.

Nima Lepcha, a community leader, said: "The SDF government had poured cold water on the hopes and aspirations of the Bhutia-Lepcha communities in their fight against preserving their distinct cultural and political identity and hence the decision this time by the two communities to back the Congress."

The Bhutias and the Lepchas were once in a majority in Sikkim but with the unabated influx of migrants from Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, the two ethnic groups are today outnumbered.

The change in the demographic pattern has led to ethnic discontent brewing in this mountainous state, with the two communities now demanding constitutional safeguards.

"The large scale influx of people from outside has threatened the very existence of Bhutias and Lepchas in Sikkim," Bhutia said.

In most of the 12 seats reserved for the Bhutia and Lepcha communities, the Nepali voters outnumber the indigenous population, leading to the discontent.

The general grouse is that Chief Minister Chamling is encouraging people from the Nepali community, now in a majority, to overwhelm the indigenous Bhutia and Lepcha communities politically.

"We have clearly mentioned in our manifesto about the party's support to the demands of the Bhutia and Lepcha communities if we are voted to power," Sikkim Congress president Bhandari said.

The changed political alignments could upset the SDF's electoral chances, more so because it also failed to work out any alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in so far as seat adjustments were concerned.

The SDF is an ally of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in New Delhi.

"Efforts for an electoral alliance with the SDF failed and so we are going it alone in the polls," said H.R. Pradhan, president of the Sikkim state BJP.

In a state where caste and ethnic loyalties determine political alignments and decide the fate of political parties, the decision by the Bhutia, Lepcha communities to back the Congress could cost the SDF dear. But the party is unfazed.

"We are sure winners, and people know how much development work we did during the last five years of our rule," Chamling said.

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