The first phase of the Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal took place on Thursday, in the four seats of North Bengal: Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Alipur Duar and Darjeeling.
North Bengal has been Bengal’s most politically volatile landmass. And the epicentre of it has been the Darjeeling hills, the hotbed of Gorkha politics. But this Lok Sabha election is setting new political trends in the mystic hills.
For the first time in the history of their politics, the hills are witnessing a multi-cornered fight. The strongholds of the Gorkha politics have been challenged by the mainstream national parties. Be it Darjeeling town or the subdivisions of Kurseong or Kalimpong , campaigning by all the parties in the fray has been on in full force.
Over the last decade, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has been the flag bearer of a strong separate state movement of the Nepali community who dominate the hills. Leading them is GJM chief Bimal Gurung. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP supported the GJM’s demand of a separate Gorkhaland and its candidate Jaswant Singh won with a huge margin. Jaswant was never seen in Darjeeling after that, nor was the BJP. The GJM’s alliance with the BJP kind of snapped off.
After Mamata Banerjee stormed to power in West Bengal, the first thing she did was to end the impasse in the hills. An MoU was signed, paving the way for the creation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), which is ruled by the GJM. The GJM had then supported Mamata in the state elections. But relations started to get bitter after the formation of the GTA with standoffs within a few years.
The face off became ugly after Mamata went ahead and nominated former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia as the Trinamool Congress candidate for Darjeeling. Although very popular amongst youths in the hills, Bhutia hails from Sikkim. This irked the GJM and it went forward to again strike a chord with the BJP. The GJM is supporting BJP national vice-president Surinder Singh Ahluwalia, and the fight is between Bhutia and Ahluwalia. Also in the fray is Mahendra P Lama, the former vice chancellor of Sikkim University, an independent candidate who is expected to cut into the intellectual vote bank in the Darjeeling hills.
All this while, the GJM has been the most dominating force in the hills, this time Mamata has challenged Gurung in his own turf. Although riding on the call for a separate Gorkhaland, the BJP-GJM combine might sneak through, but the fact remains this election is going to change many political equations in the hills. Over past few months, the TMC has been able to make inroads in the hills, thus the idea of Gorkhaland faces stiff challenge from Mamata’s chants of development. And in doing so, Mamata is actually planning to spread her party’s base and challenge the GJM. During the Subhas Ghising reign, the ruling Left Front had withdrawn from the hills; Mamata has not made that mistake. She has shown political assertion. This might cost her the Darjeeling seat this time, but allow her to create a base for the party.
The BJP is also looking at the non-Nepali vote bank of the hills. But it is the TMC that has made considerable inroads once again. It has got support amongst the smaller communities like the Tamangs and the Lepchas.
Thus for the GJM this is battle royal. The question of the survival of the Gorkhaland movement is at stake.