Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Trees, King Makers, Sikkim and Elections in India

It is election time in India and since am located in Sikkim, I am following the local election scenario. It entails following the local press and understanding the Sikkimese scene, issues and community configuration. The general sort of advice to anyone trying to make sense of elections in India is that they should look to understand the ethnic issues community, clan, caste, tribe, religion, language or race and you will have the larger picture of the contest, like the frame of a painting. In most parts of India, it is one of these factors or a combination of them which determine the ruling coalition. Issues play a certain role but by themselves alone, issues even if developmental, will not win you seats, if you are brazen or modern enough to claim ignorance of the identity of your constituents or if you consider it not relevant. Cynical but this is my understanding of Indian politics and I think of it as the norm. We do have exceptions to this generalization. Biharis would point out that George Fernandes, an outsider and a Christian always won his elections from Muzaffarpur. People from other parts of the country would mention the exceptions (and there are quite a few) from their region. However, the norm remains extremely primordial in the fact that identities decide the winner.

The Department also organized a talk on the issues and players in the Sikkim Elections by a prominent journalist from Gangtok, Joseph Lepcha. Joseph's talk was bare and focussed, on the election arithmetic with percentage of votes and seats. He also briefly looked at the issues in the past, for instance, the de-merger demand of the Sikkim Sangram Parishad (SSP) led by Nar Bahadur Bhandari (now in Congress),the effect of the Mandal Commission report and the Income Tax issues. Personally, for me the talk was so good, with the numbers at the finger tips and the easy flagging of important issues that I was tempted to churn out a piece for some journal on the Sikkim election scene. But I resisted the immoral, self fish call. Since I am on this confessional mode, I ought to admit, that most of the information I have is due to the kind indulgence of two friends, one of who is the editor of the largest selling newspaper in Sikkim, and the other, a bureau chief for a Hindi Daily.

The ruling party is a regional outfit called the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF). The SDF has been in government for three terms and the last 14 years and in my opinion, it appears likely that they will continue for the next five. But that is not the interesting part of the story, the more exciting part is the Congress Manifesto, but some background first. The Congress is led by a man called Nar Bahadur Bhandari (mentioned earlier), who was the Chief Minister of Sikkim for 14 years before SDF under Pawan Chamling formed the government. When in Darjeeling as a kid, I used to hear suspicious stuff about Bhandari, I do not recollect the details, but the things were not cheerful, it had that smell of bullying. I have faint recollections that the stories were disturbing. Bhandari is/was in the mould of the regional leaders of the Door Darshan-days, leaders who were brazen about power and used it like imagined Hindi film villains. Bhandari has been out of the government structure for a long time.

Sikkim is an organic state and grazing, felling of trees in forest areas are not permitted. The Sikkim State Congress's manifesto actually promises that fertilizers and pesticides will be distributed for free if the Congress is brought to power, it also promises free grazing everywhere and the felling of trees as also the development of saw mills to process the cut trees. I was shocked when I read this, after all this is the age of climate change, saving forests is of prime importance and global warming has also had its effect on Sikkim. On inquiring about the irrational promises, I was told that Bhandari's sole poll agenda is anti-Chamling and so he opposes everything the SDF government has followed and his explanation to the public is that new forests are generated every few years, so there are no problems in cutting them down! There is truth though in the matter that such steps taken by the SDF government did affect interests of the agricultural population but it seems oddly disturbing to actually turn the clock back on such a progressive state of affairs. But in many respects, such morbidity defines Bhandari, similar to perhaps, Mulayam Singh Yadav protesting in favour of students rights to use unfair means during examinations.

Rahul Gandhi was here in Gangtok lending support to Bhandari's campaign. He spoke for about eight minutes and in my view his description of the attributes of the 'North East' people were rather patronizing. Interestingly, Rahul also claimed that he was in Sikkim 18 years ago in the Sonam Gyatso Mountaineering Institute (SGMI) for over a month, for I think a rock/mountain climbing course. I was with Sikkim journalists who were just returning to the office after the public meeting at Paljor Stadium and with Varun Gandhi's (fake degrees from SOAS And LSE) in mind, I asked them to follow up, Gandhi's tryst with SGMI and check if his claims were legitimate.

I will perhaps follow this little introduction of Sikkim politics with another write up some time later about the community issues and the social engineering that keeps the SDF in power. It would suffice to say that, the Newar, Bahun and Chettri (NBC and Non Backward Castes) are the traditional support group behind Bhandari and the Congress while the Nepalese OBC castes are with Chamling and the SDF. In the SDF's kitty and essentially due to its conduct over the past 15 years is the confidence of the Bhutia-Lepcha (BL) group. As to how these and the other factors like money, individuals and the random factors work remains to be seen. I do hope I can do this before the election results in Sikkim are out and I am proven wrong, pre-election analysis, even if wrong, is an indulgence we all need.

But since, I am doing it, I will take it a little further and make some predictions. My hunch on the numbers is that out of the 32 assembly seats, at best, only 3-5 will fall in the Congress kitty, the rest would remain with SDF. I am marking out those seats for the Congress despite the fact that in the last Assembly SDF had the following numbers 31/32. Such numbers was due to the fact that a number of Congress candidates nomination papers were rejected in the 2004 elections. The other important issue to mention is that the SDF with its ticket distribution has effectively managed to blunt the anti-incumbency factor it could be facing. It did not give tickets to 21 of its sitting MLA's out of which 10 were ministers. Earth shaking for any party, anywhere in India but so far we see little or no discontent. This is undoubtedly due to Chamling's dominating leadership and the fact that he remains focussed on governance and the distribution of state benefits to a significantly larger section of the Sikkim population. It should also tell us something about Chamling's reputation and chances in the near future of Sikkim. And since the politician class is a wily lot and is prone to throwing its weight in whichever direction the wind blows, we can safely assume that, the wind is going to blow in the direction of the SDF. At the best of times, people during elections change parties in their search for tickets so my conjecture is that despite dropping 20 MLA's, if none have gone in search for another ticket, the results of the Sikkim elections, just requires intelligent guess work.

Staying with elections, psephologists, analysts and the insufferable TV herd is at it again, making predictions about who will form the next government in Delhi. I think everyone is certain that the Parliament is again heading towards a scenario in which no party will get enough seats to form the government on its own. The situation is even more lucrative for the TV clique, they can churn out millions of 30 second length stories, contradicting each other, about the 'king makers', who as the press continues in the same vein, wish to be Kings!

Mayawati is the flavor of the season. The adulation of Mayawati is centred on the imminence of her political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) gaining in the North Indian belt at the expense of Pehalwan Mulayam's Samjwadi Party (SP) and the BJP. Thereby, holding the 'key' to who forms the next government at Delhi. Mukul Kesavan, in, Virago in Diamonds- Who’s afraid of Kumari Mayavati?, writes succinctly about the social attitudes to Mayawati. The Foreign Press also appears to be having a field day with Mayawati, Newsweek calls her India's Anti-Obama and WSJ titles its piece, Whose is afraid of Kumari Mayawati? (I am also wondering about the similar title in the Kesavan piece and the WSJ).

So the scenario is that we might have leaders of the regional parties, with only blinkered domestic agendas and no external experience or outlook, who are to perhaps come to power. Malvika Singh in her column Mala Fide, The Telegraph, 21st April 2009, suggests that the media, Should put them to Test Now, "Maybe the time is right for the anchor-persons to invite Mayavati and ask her how she would handle the havoc in Pakistan, how she plans to deal with the Taliban in the border, how she would work on the next phase of the nuclear deal with Barack Obama. India needs to know what its aspiring leaders are all about. Invite Mulayam Singh, Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar et al, get them out of their regional and local issues since they are desperately aspiring for the Dilli gaddi, and let us all hear their expositions on other — national and international — issues that plague the world — from global warming to terror. Parochial mindsets, limited passions, and predictable attitudes do not make national leaders. We have seen the rabblerousing skills on podiums, heard the hysterical rhetoric and hollow promises of a better life from all those who have been out of power. We must now hear them articulate their policy positions, then make our choice."


Gossip Girl said...

Great, India will have Mayawati as a Prime Minister, Pratibha Patil as President and Sonia Gandhi as opposition.

Being Gossip Girl and all, im all in for woman representation and empowerment, but it's sure about time a guy with balls stood up. No pun intended.

... said...

All calculations went down the drain didn't it??? i mean pawar had to eat his words...
sorry, nothing against women...
sometimes i feel, considering the nature of the job and the situation where i am, the only reason i don't get a rape charge against me is cos i'm a woman.. short of that all the tricks have been tried by the so called 'NGOs', 'student groups', 'women's groups' etc...

... said...

hey, satya.. forgot to say Hi and ask How are you??