Kolkata: All eyes are on the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) elections, which are scheduled to be held on Sunday after a decade, amid a sea of change in the dynamics of hill politics in the last few years.
The polls to the 45-member semi-autonomous council will be held with traditional hill parties such as Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), besides the BJP boycotting the elections, and new entrant Hamro Party contesting all the seats after winning Darjeeling Municipality in the recent civic polls.
However, many politicians, whose parties have boycotted the elections, are contesting as independent candidates.
Hamro Party, floated by Ajoy Edwards, a former GNLF leader and a renowned restaurateur in Darjeeling town, has emerged as a new political force in the hills.
“We are confident of winning the GTA elections just like we bagged Darjeeling Municipality in the civic polls. The people of the hills are fed up with the false promises of these parties that have only betrayed the faith of the masses over the last few decades,” Edwards told PTI.
In 2011, after the Trinamool Congress came to power in West Bengal by ending the 34-year-long rule of the Left Front, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) was formed in presence of GJM supremo Bimal Gurung, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram.
The new semi-autonomous council replaced the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which administered the hills for 23 years since 1988.
The GJM swept the first and only GTA polls in 2012, winning all the seats. Elections could not be held in 2017 due to a violent statehood agitation, and a state-appointed administrative body took over the reins of the council.
The GJM, which has ceased much of its ground to Hamro Party due to several political flip-flops over the years, has decided to boycott the elections as its demand for increasing the area of GTA’s jurisdiction was not heeded by the state government.
“Why would we contest polls? The GTA is no longer an autonomous body. It doesn’t look after the rights of the people of the hills,” GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said.
The peace achieved between the GJM and the TMC government through the formation of GTA was short-lived as Gurung called for shutdown of the hills in 2013, and again in 2017, to press for the statehood demand.
During the 104-day agitation in 2017, several people were killed, including police personnel, forcing Gurung to flee the hills.
The strike also led to a split in the GJM, with Binay Tamang, Gurung’s deputy, taking over the reins of the party. Gurung and his loyalists were expelled from the party.
In October 2020, Gurung walked out of a political alliance with BJP, accusing it of betraying the Gorkhaland cause. The BJP had won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat three times since 2009.
Gurung then aligned GJM with his former bete noire Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. Tamang also joined the ruling party in West Bengal in December last year.
Echoing its former ally GJM, BJP, which has also boycotted the GTA polls, said the semi-autonomous council is a “farce” to fool the masses of the hills.
“What purpose has GTA served in the last 10 years? Did it meet the aspirations of the people of the hills? GTA is just an extension of the TMC party,” Darjeeling’s BJP MP Raju Bista said.
The ruling TMC, on the other hand, has an unofficial seat adjustment with former GTA chairman and GJM leader Anit Thapa’s newly formed outfit Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM), with the Trinamool Congress contesting ten seats and BGPM 36.
“We hope to win this GTA election. BJP and its allies are trying to divide the people of the hills and the plains,” a senior TMC leader said.
A total of 318 candidates are in the fray, out of which 210 are independents.
“There is a visible undercurrent against all traditional parties as some of them are aligned with the BJP and others with the TMC. The people of the hills are looking for some freshness, and Hamro Party has a clear advantage over others,” Munish Tamang, national president of Bharatiya Gorkha Parishad and an observer of hill politics, said.
Darjeeling, often referred to as the ‘Queen of the Hills’, has witnessed several political parties over the years promising the people of the hills a separate Gorkhaland state and implementation of the Sixth Schedule, which grants autonomy to a tribal-inhabited region.
Although the demand for separation of the region from West Bengal is over a century old, the Gorkhaland statehood movement was ignited by GNLF leader Subhash Ghisingh in 1986.
The violent stir claimed hundreds of lives and culminated in 1988 with the formation of the DGHC.
The elections to the Siliguri Mahakuma Parishad will also be held on June 26.
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