Is Darjeeling to Bengal what Varanasi is turning out to be for India? In many senses, yes. It is the microcosm of some of the big fights we will witness when the largest democracy in the world goes to vote, but also representative of the larger issues that the state is facing.
While the Trinamool Congress has floated football player and a local hero for Darjeeling, Baichung Bhutia, following a trend of nominating celebrities in several constituencies, the BJP has floated its vice-president SS Ahluwalia here after its 2009 winner Jaswant Singh wanted to contest from his home state Rajasthan. Saman Pathak, son of well-known leader Ananda Pathak, is the CPI(M) candidate from Darjeeling, a man known for his clean image.
Apart from them are the two local parties, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The GJM, formed in 2007 by Bimal Gurung who has led the fight for a separate Gorkhaland singlehandedly after he fell out with GNLF’s Subhash Ghising, had won the three assembly seats of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong in the 2011 Assembly elections and turned Darjeeling into a safe seat for BJP by supporting Singh in 2009. This time, GJM has once again decided to support the BJP, who in turn have promised to support the formation of a separate state of Gorkhaland if it comes to power at the Centre.
The final twist in the story arrived when the GNLF’s Subhash Ghising re-entered Darjeeling this week, after a forced exile of five years. All set to begin his second innings in politics, his first statement on reaching Darjeeling was, “I am the original Subhash Ghising. And this time I will stay.” It is not difficult to see Trinamool Congress’ support in bringing him back as an attempt to foil the coalition between Gurung and BJP. Ghising aims at incorporating North Bengal under the Sixth Schedule to give the area autonomy of rule and does not aim for a separate state anymore. This suits the current state government as well as the CPI(M), whose current Darjeeling district secretary Jibesh Sarkar has given out an open invitation for support from GNLF.
Ghising is not making his stand clear as yet, though he will be happy to find support in the two major state parties if he has to frame a formidable “other” to Gurung’s GJM.
Darjeeling has never been an easy part of West Bengal. A senior editor in a newspaper once mentioned that Darjeeling never faced what the revolt in Lalgarh faced in terms of state repression due to its strategic geographical position (the connection to North East) and the role of the Gorkhas in the Indian army.
But the demand for Gorkhaland has also been moulded over time. After coming to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee signed a memorandum for Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, and tried to shift the discourse from state autonomy to peace and development. Though unable to reopen the Dheklapara tea garden, the government brought in free cooked food to the workers and free healthcare provisions. Mamata also envisions Kalimpong as a tourist destination as big as Darjeeling.
With the BJP coming out in support of a separate Gorkha state, Mamata Banerjee has warned that West Bengal will not turn out to be the next Andhra Pradesh. Nevertheless, she has realised that the elections are significant to make a point to the GJM who has now found an ally in its call for separate statehood. Hence, by allowing Ghising to come back, Mamata is trying to ensure that Darjeeling will not be a comfortable “safe” seat for BJP.
However, it remains to be seen what the people of Darjeeling will vote for. Peace, development, star power, an old leader who they once saw as a champion of their rights, or will the battle between more autonomy and a separate state figure most prominent.