An architect of a better Sikkim

Just like in Nepal, a professional fed up with corruption, decides to contest local elections

Kailash Pradhan was one of many independent candidates to run in Sikkim's non-partisan municipal elections in 2021. All photos courtesy: KAILASH PRADHAN

Corruption was rife. There was rank opportunism. Service delivery was poor and impunity had become institutionalised. There was environmental degradation everywhere in the mountains.

No, we are not talking about Nepal. This is Sikkim, which till 1975 was an independent Himalayan kingdom, and has been a state of India since its annexation.

Like in Nepal’s 2022 polls, professionals fed up with the way Sikkim was being governed, and impatient for change decided to contest elections. One of them was architect Kailash Pradhan. 

“When I noticed the state of affairs in Sikkim, I felt like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand,” recalls Pradhan. “I was thinking about architecture and beautiful designs, but that was not what Sikkim needed.” 

Pradhan studied in Ahmedabad to be an architect and spent time in Zurich as an exchange student. But he always intended to come back and build a life in Sikkim.

Pradhan with fellow candidates from Upper MG Marg (left) and Lower MG Marg (right).

“When people asked me if I was going to stay in Zurich, I often wondered to myself what I was going to do there that hadn’t already been done,” Pradhan says.

He eventually came back to India, and spent some years in Delhi, being one of the very few Sikkimese architects to work with the government. In the early 90s, he returned to Sikkim, building his own architectural practice.

As the years passed, Pradhan became more and more aware of the socio-politics of Sikkim. New Delhi had historically poured money into the geopolitically-sensitive state, with most people benefiting directly from federal grants.

There was a lack of transparency everywhere. Sikkim’s nature was being destroyed by an infrastructure spree. Watching all this unfold, Pradhan started feeling a professional restlessness and he took up a job offer in Bhutan where he was witness to Bhutan’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. 

Five years later, he returned to Sikkim with a fresh perspective, inspired to do more activism back home. In 2020, Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang’s government amended the Sikkim Municipality Act, abolishing party-based municipal and local elections.

Candidates contesting municipal elections could not be affiliated with any political party, and could not receive direct or indirect support from them. Essentially, candidates for local governments were independent. 

When municipal elections were announced in Sikkim in early 2021, Pradhan’s friends, including his business partner, approached him to contest the election.

“My knee-jerk reaction was to refuse,” says Pradhan, having not been interested in anything political till then. But he was familiar with politics, since his father had been a government employee, and his uncle was active in the anti-Chogyal revolution in the 1970s leading to a referendum that abolished the monarchy.

Eventually, Pradhan filed his candidacy and became one of 64 aspirants in two wards of Gangtok Municipal Corporation. Pradhan and his team deliberately did not seek funding from businesses and contractors, conducting a ‘zero-budget’ campaign.

Pradhan with his campaign team and volunteers.

“When parties need money they reach out to businesses, and then become crony capitalists, giving rise to oligarchies,” says Pradhan. But supporters would voluntarily support him with cheques for small amounts, food, beer.  

By this time, Pradhan was known among locals for stopping the Sikkim government from felling almost 400 trees to make way for new roads. His team had around 25 volunteers: friends who were photographers, graphic artists, filmmakers -- and social media became his medium to reach voters. 

Pradhan lost in both Gangtok wards in Municipal elections in 2021. The winning candidates belonged to the governing party, even though it had not explicitly thrown its support behind them, as per the rules. “You can take the party out of elections, but you cannot take the party out of voters,” Pradhan explains, admitting that he may not have been able to connect to grassroots voters who may not have had access to his social media outreach.  

But Pradhan is encouraged by the people he met and the team he built throughout the campaign. He says, “We connected the most with young people who are much more egalitarian and have much less ego. And while the winners indicated that things have gone back to normal, it was good to see so many independent candidates contesting the election.”

Next time, anyone contesting from Sikkim could take a tip or two from Nepal’s own independent mayors elected in 2022, and the independent Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) which rose to become the fourth party in Parliament just five months after it was formed.  

Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.