The mass defection of MLAs makes a mockery of democracy in Sikkim
The switching of sides by 10 MLAs from the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Sikkim on Tuesday and later two others from the SDF to the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) brings a sense of deja vu. The en masse shifts are reminiscent of what happened in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016, when rebel Congress MLAs joined the People’s Party of Arunachal in order to get over the legal hurdles to defection. These actions have reduced the SDF, which ruled the State for 25 years with Pawan Kumar Chamling as the Chief Minister with the longest tenure in India, to just one MLA — Mr. Chamling himself. Such a shift might well have helped the former SDF legislators stay clear of the anti-defection law, which stipulates that a breakaway group must constitute at least two-thirds of the legislative party’s strength and that it must merge with another party.
But this was an unethical manoeuvre, as the elections to the Sikkim legislative Assembly were held barely three months ago and the BJP had come a cropper without winning a single seat and just 1.6% of the overall vote. The BJP has shown no qualms — as seen elsewhere in Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh among others — about poaching legislators instead of winning over support organically through a democratic mandate. The Sikkim defections have added yet another chapter to the hollowing out of the anti-defection law. The SDF, which finished with 15 seats (two since vacated), was a National Democratic Alliance member, but has now been replaced by the 18-member SKM in the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance.
The SKM might have secured a clearer majority with the defection of two SDF MLAs to its fold, but a cloud of uncertainty hangs over its party leader and Chief Minister P.S. Golay alias Prem Singh Tamang. Mr. Golay was convicted in 2016 in a case of corruption and had served a sentence in prison for a year till August 2018. The People’s Representation Act, 1951, mandates that a person convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act cannot contest an election for six years after release.
The fact that he is serving as the Chief Minister (he did not contest the Assembly polls) despite the conviction goes directly against a Supreme Court order in a similar case dealing with the eligibility of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in 2001. The court had then said that the “appointment of a person to the office of Chief Minister who is not qualified to hold it should be struck down at the earliest”. In line with the drastic change in the party composition in the Assembly due to the defections, the continuance of Mr. Golay as chief minister makes a mockery of democratic and legal principles. Something is rotten in the State of Sikkim.
Symptom as cause
The auto sales slump reflects a pervasive lack of demand
India’s automobile industry is experiencing a snowballing crisis of demand that shows no signs of abating, leave alone reversing. Domestic sales across all vehicle categories slid 19% year-on-year in July, as passenger vehicle despatches plunged 31% to register the segment’s steepest fall in almost 19 years. And with the wheels having come off both two-wheeler deliveries and commercial vehicle shipments, with the former contracting 17% and the latter slumping 26%, the picture is one of widespread gloom. The straightforward interpretation of the data is that demand has dried up in all corners and among all key consumer segments — urban, semi-urban and rural and personal and institutional. Nine straight months of contraction in passenger vehicle sales has also begun extracting a toll in terms of showroom closures and lay-offs at dealerships, component suppliers and vehicle makers themselves. While the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations recently warned of more jobs being at risk, on top of about two lakh positions that have already been shed, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers admitted that the industry had laid off at least about 15,000 contract workers in the last three months. That the broader economy is experiencing a serious slowdown has been evident for some time now and the latest data from the auto sector only bears testament to it. And as the RBI acknowledged last week “private consumption, the mainstay of aggregate demand” remains sluggish.
While some of the factors currently bedevilling demand in the auto sector are well established — the liquidity crunch in the NBFC industry and the resultant tightening of credit availability to finance vehicle purchases, an increase in up front insurance costs and the 28% GST charged on cars, motorcycles and scooters — the fact that manufacturers overestimated demand when setting up capacity, especially of fossil-fuel powered vehicles, has largely been overlooked. For example, Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car maker, has announced plans to stop selling diesel cars from April 1 as demand has slumped. In 2012, the company decided to invest â‚¹1,700 crore in a new diesel engine plant in Gurugram, capacity that it now needs to repurpose or idle. Simultaneously, the ride-share industry has mushroomed in recent years, especially in urban areas where choked roads and lack of parking space have incentivized rapid adoption of app-based commuting. The outlook too, especially for the near term, looks far from hopeful. The RBI’s July round of its Consumer Confidence Survey, which reflected a decline in consumer confidence in July, shows 63.8% of respondents expect discretionary spending will stay the same or shrink one year ahead. In June 2018, the comparable reading was 37.3%. The onus now lies on the government to urgently formulate policy interventions to address this sectoral crisis or risk wider contagion.
Amidst the babble of voices on the sudden abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)’s special constitutional status, the simultaneous transformation of Ladakh into a Union Territory (UT) has not received much attention. During last week’s parliamentary debate on this decision, Ladakh’s Member of Parliament Jamyang Tsering Namgyal argued powerfully that Ladakhis had been demanding UT status for the region for many decades. Finally achieving it, he said, will enable the region to achieve its full development potential. But are the prospects for his constituency that clear?
For decades, a substantial part of Ladakh (specifically, Leh district) has felt stifled or alienated by J&K’s decisionmaking apparatus, which was centred in Srinagar. The J&K government has often been insensitive to the region’s ecological and cultural uniqueness, whose incredible beauty masks the extreme fragility of its cold desert ecosystems and the highly adaptive traditional livelihoods of its people. These are so unlike the topography of the rest of India that people from other parts of the country cannot even understand them.
Pressure on ecology
This landscape has found it difficult to weather the pressure being put by the infrastructure projects, the presence of armed forces and excessive tourism. Further, these activities, and the inappropriate educational systems foisted on Ladakhis, have disrupted the lifestyles of the region’s traditional ethnic groups. The bifurcation of Ladakh, which was once a single district, into Leh and Kargil, clearly on religious grounds, has also been seen by many local people to have driven an unnecessarily divisive wedge between Buddhist and Muslim populations.
Given the above factors, the demand to make Ladakh a UT appears to have been backed by strong reasoning. One can wonder, though, why the demand was not for a separate State, or at least, for a territory having its own legislature, for there is little evidence to suggest that coming under the direct control of the Central government will signal greater autonomy for the region. The way New Delhi has treated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, largely ignoring its ecological fragility and the sensitivities of its indigenous peoples, does not inspire much confidence. Moreover, the aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda of the current Central regime could only pose more challenges to Ladakh.
Being home to enormous mineral reserves and tourism sites, Ladakh could easily find itself getting exploited by commercial interests even more once its economy is opened. This would only put greater pressure on its already fragile ecosystem, and consequently impact the mores of its pastoral and agricultural communities that are dependent on it. The region has already been facing environmental issues due to landslips, soil erosion, accumulation of solid waste, disturbances to its wildlife population and diversion of commons for development projects.
More infrastructure projects
However, the J&K government’s financial and administrative ability to scale such activities up was extremely limited. The Central government, not constrained by such fetters, may press ahead with more hydropower, mining and road construction programmes, making sensitive areas more vulnerable.
The third danger to the region will possibly come from an increased presence of the armed forces. Given the importance the present government attaches to threats, real and perceived, coming from China and Pakistan, the likelihood of more personnel getting stationed is high. Thousands of hectares of pasture land have already been occupied by the forces, with disruptive consequences for wildlife and local communities. The Army is yet to give us an accurate figure on how much of the region’s land has been diverted for use by its personnel.
Ladakh has had its own Autonomous Hill Development Council for more than two decades. However, during a study trip in March this year, we learned from political functionaries, activists and civil society members that there was, on the ground, no true autonomy. Decisions were mostly made from Srinagar and, to some extent, New Delhi.
This is not to say that had Ladakh been given greater autonomy, it would necessarily have chosen a different path; sections of the region’s mainstream do aspire for greater ‘development’. But we need to stress here that many sections of Ladakh’s society also have a different vision for its future. This includes civil society groups such as the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh; the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust; the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation; and the Ladakh Ecological Development Group. These groups have done innovative work on various fronts — including education; ecotourism; and arts. With power receding further away from the region and now firmly resting in New Delhi, their voices are likely to be heard even less.
Need for a sensitive plan
A Ladakh 2025 Vision document, formulated in 2005 after substantial consultation, was shelved both because the Hill Council did not push it, and because Srinagar and New Delhi were not interested. The plan contained several innovative proposals to address the needs and aspirations of Ladakh’s population, including by providing sustainable livelihoods for its rural people and youth. How will the state of affairs in Ladakh change now with its new constitutional status? Without its own legislature, the region will have only limited power; further, it is not clear if its Hill Council will continue. A lot will depend on what vision New Delhi and Leh can jointly come up with.
In March, when we met Mr. Namgyal, who was then heading the Hill Council, we found him sensitive to the ecological and cultural issues the region faces. He had just brought out a draft for a mission on ecological farming and sounded receptive towards an alternative vision I proposed through a presentation.
Will he and others around him, through whom New Delhi’s decisions will be channelled, be willing and able to mould the proposals to suit the region’s requirements? Will they revive the Vision 2025 document, updating it if necessary? Will Ladakh’s farmers, pastoralists, women and youth get a more meaningful voice in the new dispensation than they have had so far within the Hill Council status, or will they be marginalised even further? And even if they do get a voice, will they opt for a sustainable, culturally rooted future? For the sake of one of the world’s most remarkable bio-cultural landscapes, let us hope so.