It was December 1994. The congregation of top bureaucrats awaited the arrival of a new Chief Minister, Pawan Chamling, who would address the heads of all the departments of the state government. The man finally arrived and took his seat at the head table. He looked at the faces of those men and women seated in the hall who constituted the pinnacle of the bureaucratic totem pole. They ran the most dominant system in the state called bureaucracy, which is feared and venerated as the ultimate body of power in the state. No wonder some of them were obnoxiously self-possessed. Not every citizen had the courage to face them head on and speak frankly.
Against this back drop of them ruling the roost of the state administration, Pawan Chamling had stirred up a hornet’s nest by his slogan – Janta RajmaJantai Raja. Now was the time to proclaim it once again in front of these pantheons of power. But he didn’t say a word. Suspense hung in the air. Was he overwhelmed at the presence of some of those overbearing personalities, stuck up, almost intoxicated by the power that they had so pompously held for so long? At least one of them thought thus and so he blurted out, “Sir, why don’t you start your speech? What are you waiting for?” It was probably a ploy to attack the new Chief Minister psychologically.
Unperturbed by this rude remark, he looked at them silently for several moments longer and then at last told them that they were under no obligation to listen to his command. He said, “But please know that I, as chief minister, embody the public mandate and I, in that sense, represent the power of the people. I expect you to respect the government’s decisions made in the interests of the people who have given us this responsibility to run the state administration for five years.
That was exactly 24 years ago. The 19 year old state of Sikkim had welcomed a 44 year old man – Pawan Chamling as its fifth Chief Minister. Democracy was the buzzword. His party, the Sikkim Democratic Front, strongly condemned the decline of democracy under the Bhandari government. The evaluation of the Chamling leadership, therefore, should be conducted in relation to the promise of democracy that he made with a candle brandished in the State Legislative Assembly.
His accentuation on Janta Raj is a logical outworking of his political ideology. The biggest question is – how did Sikkim benefit from his Janta Raj? In other words, has he done anything special in Sikkim politics that other governments can take note of?
Janta RajmaJantai Raja actually promises more than what democracy gives in a general sense. It attempts to shorten the gap between the government and the people. Or it at least keeps the people at the closest distance from the seat of governance. Here are a few examples:
In his recent meeting with research scholars from across the state, one of the speakers, Patrus Lepcha, proposed that Sikkim, with the success of organic farming, may soon need an Agriculture and Horticulture college of its own. The Chief minister in his response said, “In democracy, people make decisions and the government implements. Respecting the decision of the scholars’ community, I promise to initiate the establishment of the college and we will see it running from next year.” That is how instantly and easily Janta Raj should work. Is this a one off incidence? Sikkim is probably the only Indian state that has witnessed scores of ‘on the spot’ approvals of public demands for school upgradations, roads, establishments of colleges and so on. Easy and instant state recognition of almost all the local languages, seat reservations in various fields and direct affirmative actions are Sikkim-specific political activities unheard of in other states. This is not to mean that the state government does not grapple with a shortage of funds, technicalities of union list versus state list and unforeseen difficulties that hinder some processes, thereby causing inconvenience and frustration to people. However, it is safe to say that Sikkim enjoys some of the best development indicators in the country – such as a record breaking poverty reduction, the highest literacy rate, an increase of over 10 years in life expectancy in the last two decades, the highest growth rate of higher educational institute at 15 percent (the national average is 7 percent), the lowest crime rate, the safest place for women, the first Nirmal Rajya and open defecation free state, the hottest tourist destination and the first and only organic state. Over a hundred national awards in various fields of administration testify to her unprecedented rise.
These indicators apart, the most significant thing is the nature of the counter-narrative of the opposition parties. The buzzword in the opposite camp is “parivartan” not democracy. The opposition voices in the state politics are getting ever louder, ironically suggesting that there is full freedom of speech and safe and ample space for dissent.
Does that mean that all is well in the SDF leadership? Certainly not! Not everyone in the party and in the government understands the essence of Janta RajmaJantai Raja. Not all know the dignity of people that Chief Minister has been drumming into his colleagues’ head. In the Bhandari government, there were leaders who never greeted the common people except during election campaigns. Some of them were exceedingly arrogant and were overtly disrespectful to people. Do such leaders exist today? There is a general feeling among people that the quintessential Chamling humility has not quite seeped its way into many leaders.
What is equally crucial is the role played by bureaucracy. While some are incredibly committed to the service of the people, some are simply blinded by power, just as they were before the SDF government took over the reins of administration. Megalomaniac officials who do not allow a fly to sit on their nose (Nepali expression) are a huge liability to the government. In the name of government service, they are serving their own egos and, unfortunately, many such folks hold key positions. They are the enemies of Janata Raj and the Chief Minister openly concedes that he has been battling against such forces till this day. People have begun to express their displeasure against such people. One hopes that the Chief Minister-people connectivity would become even more meaningful and productive. There is where the strength of the Chamling leadership and Janata Raj lies.