People of the Himalayan idyll of Sikkim yearn for a “corruption and violence free” government in elections to the state assembly slated to be held early next year, said ace footballer-turned-politician Bhaichung Bhutia.
In an interview to PTI, Bhutia, who heads the Hamro Sikkim Party (HSP) said his party is working closely with the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) led by former chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling on issues such as “dilution” of Article 371F, which give certain special rights on land ownership to Sikkimese. He said there is a strong possibility of an electoral alliance between the two parties which had also joined hands on another key demand – introducing an Inner Line Permit (ILP) which would restrict visitors and settlers in the pristine state wedged between West Bengal, Nepal and China.
“HSP wants all opposition parties in Sikkim to unitedly fight the SKM-BJP alliance and defeat it in next year’s polls. “We are already working closely with the SDF and raising our voices together over current issues. So, there is a possibility of an electoral alliance between HSP and SDF,” the former India football captain told PTI in a telephonic interview.
He said the SDF has supported HSP during the latter’s ‘Sikkim Ekta Yatra’ (Sikkim Unity Rally) and it was reciprocated by his outfit during the Chamling-led party’s Sikkim Bachao Abhiyan (Save Sikkim Campaign).
“The situation in Sikkim has become horrible in every aspect. There has been a rise in crime and drug abuse, there is massive corruption in the government and organised political violence has increased,” he alleged. Bhutia claimed that people were tired of “poor governance” and said they consequently were “yearning for clean leaders” He said with smile, “ … That is where we come into the scene”.
Baichung who was born into a farming family, was noticed as a football prodigy at age 9 when he won scholarship to attend the elite Tashi Namgyal Academy in Gangtok.
He went on to play for East Bengal club and then become an India XI player making his debut against Thailand at age 19. As India’s soccer captain he went on to register a series of tournament win to become a legend throughut the country. Asked about the reasons his party has not tasted electoral success so far, he said, “We were a very young party, only 7-8 months old, when we fought the 2019 polls. We did not have any organisationl structure ready to deliver votes”.
He also pointed out that there were several defections at the last moment due to various reasons. “But in the last four years, we have learnt from our mistakes and are much more organised for the 2024 elections,” Bhutia said.
The former ace footballer claimed that the HSP’s visibility has increased as the party has raised issues concerning the state.
However, he refused to divulge any details on how many seats the party wants to contest in the forthcoming elections.
“It will be decided at the right time according to what people want us to do,” he said.
Hamro Sikkim Party was floated in May 2018 on the plank of fighting corruption and attracted many senior leaders from other parties. However, several of them left the party before the 2019 polls, during which the HSP contested 23 seats and forfeited deposits in all the constituencies, bagging only 0.80 per cent of the votes.
On the raging issue of Article 371F, Bhutia said, “This legislation grants us some of the most important rights and it was the basis for Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975. Now, it is being diluted by the SKM government in the state and the BJP at the Centre through the enactment of the Financial Act, 2023. Our fight to keep Article 371F intact in letter and spirit will continue.” Financial Act, 2023, passed recently in the Parliament, extends Income Tax exemption to old plains settlers in the state, a right which was earlier granted only to ‘Sikkimese’ people – Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis of Sikkim origin.
Though Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang, better known as P S Golay, assured people that the Article 371F will not be touched and the relaxation was only granted for Income Tax, opposition parties alleged that the government was trying to redefine the term ‘Sikkimese’, and expressed fears that this may result in an influx of people from other parts of the country to the tiny Himalayan state which has fewer than 7 lakh population.