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Between Baichung Bhutia and SS Ahluwalia, hill leader may steal show

Saturday, 12 April 2014 - 6:45am IST | Place: Siliguri | Agency: dna

  • Trinamool Congress’ candidate for the Darjeeling constituency, Baichung Bhutia interacts with tea garden workers in Siliguri PTI

Mention Gorkhaland and SS Ahluwalia, the BJP candidate fighting for the Darjeeling constituency starts feeling awkward. Ahluwalia, the ageing but vocal national vice president of BJP, is the party's candidate selected to retain the seat that Jaswant Singh won in 2009.

Ahluwalia's speeches during campaigning have sp far revolved around the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland to be curved out of West Bengal and how he is game for it if the BJP forms the next government at the Centre.

Ahluwalia knows he must keep in good humour the leader of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, Bimal Gurung. It was Gurung's support that led Singh to victory with an enviable margin of 1.6 lakh votes in a constituency of 12 lakh voters in 2009. This time too, Gurung has decided to back the BJP; The hill leader was snubbed by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee when he raised the tempo and revived the demand for full statehood for the region, encouraged by the Centre's decision on Telengana.

But Ahluwalia's current uneasiness about Gorkhaland is reflecting in BJP's own stance to demands for separate statehood. "We recognise the special needs and unique problems of the hill and desert states. In consultation with the governments of these states, state-specific developmental models will be evolved so that the aspirations of the people are met," the BJP said in its manifesto earlier this week.

Ahluwalia knows that in Siliguri, the plains in the Darjeeling constituency, Gorkhaland will not bring him voters. "We are in favour of smaller states for better governance. That's why we supported the creation of Telengana. But our stance is that we will sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas," Ahluwalia told dna, carefully choosing his words at a rest house in Siliguri. "The demand of the people in the hills and in the plains are different. There are seven assembly constituencies, of which only three are in the hills."

In the hills, Ahluwalia has the support of the Gorkha community. He is now reaching out to the Lepchas, the Limbus, the Tamangs, the Bhutias and the other hill communities. "They have their own issues, such as wanting tribal status."

Ahluwalia, and his opponent, ace footballer and Trinamool Congress candidate Baichung Bhutia, are not from the constituency. They don't even belong to the state. Yet, each one claims to be closer to the people of Darjeeling than the other.

"Baichung is a Sikkimese, who has been sent by Mamata Banerjee only because he looks like a clone of Bimal Gurung. I am the real bhumiputra (son of the land), a Sikh Punjabi but a Bengali too (Ahluwalia was born and educated in Asansol and studied law in Kolkata). I speak fluent Bengali," said Ahluwalia.

On his part, Baichung says he does not favour breaking up the state, but that he identifies with the problems the people of the hills face as he comes from a similar terrain albeit in another state. Whatever be their posturing, it is Gurung, in all likelihood, who, even though the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha is loosing its grip over the hill people, holds the deciding card.

"People are getting disenchanted with Gurung's brand of politics, and particularly his habit of closing down Darjeeling every other day and scaring away the tourists and severely impacting tourism — the only major industry that sustains the hill station," said Rajib Saha, a young sweet shop owner in Kharibari.

The surprise but late entry of Subhas Ghising, of the Gorkha National Liberation Front and his decision to support the Trinamool Congress has dented the BJP's confidence of BJP. But Ghising's GNLF is a shadow of its former self, forced by Gurung to lead a life of exile outside Darjeeling from 2008 till 2011. While his absence was long enough to see his support base and his demand for autonomy for the Gorkhas hijacked, Ghising has been slowly building a base, cashing in on growing weakness in Gurung's hold, said several hill people with whom dna interacted.

"I don't think Ghising can manage a support base of more than 50,000, but he might well surprise us," said a driver, who ferries tourists from New Jalpaiguri station near Siliguri to Darjeeling.

Gurung holds sway in Darjeeling. And Baichung is realising that the hard way; some of his rallies in the hills have witnessed a poor turnout and his roadshow from Siliguri to Bhalukara near Naxalbari flopped when he returned even before reaching Kharibari. "The villages he passed through did not have many people. The road-show could have been managed better," explained a Trinamool supporter.

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