Once upon a time, Gorkha strongman Bimal Gurung held absolute sway and clout in the politically restive and volatile Darjeeling Hills. But what about now? Does he still rule the political landscape in the region or is he a spent force? This debate has found its way to every corner tea shop, marketplace and even homes across the two hill districts of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and parts of the Bengal Dooars.
On Sunday, the region goes to the polls after more than a decade for the 45-member Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) Sabha.
This could prop up a political power centre in the region and end the fluidity of the last five years, political analysts and leaders believe.
Traditional and formerly well-entrenched Gorkha political parties and national parties, including the Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Gorkha allies have boycotted the GTA polls. So, the battle lines have been drawn between Anit Thapa-led Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) and the new kid on the block, Hamro Party, led by Ajay Edwards, say analysts.
“The dynamics of (Darjeeling) Hill politics has changed drastically over the last couple of decades since the Gorkhaland agitation,” Kurseong-based veteran journalist ML Pancham told EastMojo.
“Like in the past (semi-autonomous bodies like the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council) and the first GTA, the party at the helm of the hill body wielded political clout,” Pancham said.
“Controlling the GTA board is paramount in hill politics,” Pancham pointed out.
The veteran journalist and author believes like the DGHC—the former avatar of the GTA—the polls to all-powerful semi-autonomous hill bodies have far more political significance than the Lok Sabha or the Assembly elections.
Fresh from its astounding victory in the Darjeeling Municipality election, the Hamro Party led by entrepreneur-cum-social activist-turned-politician Ajay Edwards—the owner of Darjeeling’s iconic century-old restaurant Glenary’s —is contesting all the 45 seats in the GTA polls.
Though several traditional hill political parties have ‘officially” boycotted the GTA polls, many leaders from these parties, including the BJP, GNLF and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) and other allies of the BJP-GNLF combine in the hills are contesting as independents.
“Out of the 312 candidates in the GTA fray, 210 are independents,” says Darjeeling-based senior journalist Reza Pradhan.
“The scenario is a bit confusing. On one hand, these political parties have officially boycotted the GTA polls, and on the other hand, leaders from these parties are contesting as independents,” Pradhan said.
Political observers say most Gorkha parties and their allies who have boycotted the GTA polls fared poorly in the Darjeeling Municipality polls—held in February 2022—and are wary of facing the electorate again so soon.
The desperation of parties like the BJP-GNLF combine and its allies is apparent, says a senior Trinamool Congress leader, who did not wish to be named.
The Trinamool Congress has allied with Anit Thapa’s BGPM in the polls.
In an unofficial seat adjustment deal, the BGPM is contesting 35 seats while the Trinamool Congress is contesting ten seats.
“Unsure of its prospects in the GTA, the GNLF was quick to file a petition in Calcutta High Court to withhold publication of the GTA poll results and also challenging the legality of the GTA Act,” the Trinamool leader told EastMojo.
The Calcutta High Court on Friday (June 24, 2022) refused to interfere with the GTA polls, and said that the petition challenging the enactment of the GTA Act, 2011 would be heard in detail.
The GTA was formed in 2011 after the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress came to power in West Bengal, ending the 34-year-long-rule of the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
The GTA, which replaced its earlier avatar—the DGHC—administered the hill body for more than 23 years.
The DGHC was under the maverick Gorkha strongman and GNLF supremo Subash Ghising.
Bimal Gurung’s GJM—which has ceded a lot of ground in the hills to Edwards’ Hamro Party—has boycotted the GTA polls since its demand to increase the jurisdiction under the GTA was turned down by the West Bengal government, says journalist Pradhan.
The BJP-GNLF combine too has lost ground in the hills as it has now failed to come up with something concrete on the ‘permanent political solution’ (PPS) as promised by the saffron party and also on the demand of granting tribal status to 11 communities from the region –including Darjeeling Hills, Bengal Dooars, and neighbouring Sikkim—has alienated the Gorkhas.
The formation of the DGHC was the culmination of the 28-month-long bloody agitation for a separate Gorkhaland in the mid-1980s that left more than 2,000 dead.
Ghising, who until then was the undisputed Gorkha leader, was unceremoniously ousted by his bête-noir and one-time lieutenant Bimal Gurung.
Gurung, like his mentor-turned-foe, later led two violent agitations for a separate state of Gorkhaland in 2011 and 2017.
Gurung’s GJM swept the polls in 2012, winning all the seats.
The second GTA polls could not be held due to the violent statehood agitation led by Gurung’s GJM that saw the unprecedented 104-day-long shutdown in the Darjeeling hills.
The shutdown split the GJM, with Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa rebelling against the GJM supremo—Bimal Gurung—deciding to join hands with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government.
Banerjee nominated Tamang—who headed the GJM faction—as the GTA chairperson.
Tamang resigned from the post to unsuccessfully contest the 2019 Darjeeling assembly by-polls.
Amit Thapa replaced Tamang as the chairperson of the GTA Board.
However, after the 2021 assembly elections, the West Bengal government appointed a senior official as the administrator of the GTA.
Contesting all the seats in the semi-autonomous council, the freshly-minted Hamro Party is confident of cementing its presence in the Gorkha political landscape.
The Hamro Party was a three-month-old fledgling when it comfortably won the civic polls in Darjeeling as the hill people were desperate for a change, says senior party leader Samir Sharma.
“The hill people were desperate for a change. Every political party was clamouring for big-ticket projects and selling dreams that they could not and never wanted to fulfil,” Sharma told EastMojo by phone.
“When we won the Darjeeling municipality polls, we were a three-month-old party. Today we are a six-month-old party, and we are confident of the people’s support. It’s the people that will make their dreams come true,” added Sharma.
“The Hamro Party is pitted against Anit Thapa’s BGPM, which has done little for the hill people…we are confident of sweeping the GTA polls. The Hamro Party has already started bringing about a progressive change in the hills,” Sharma said.
Though Thapa’s BGPM has the advantage of a better organisational structure, particularly in the rural belt, Edwards’ social work and philanthropic initiatives have found takers among the youngsters in the hills, says journalist Pradhan.
Edwards, who was earlier with the GNLF, may find favour among the GNLF supporters, as the party has officially boycotted the polls, believe political analysts.
“There is an urgent need for stability and sustainable development in the hills and the Hamro Party is the freshness that the people in the hills are looking for in politics.
“For decades, political parties have made false promises and betrayed the people. People are fed up,” Sharma told EastMojo.
“A large number of independent candidates in the fray is a worry for both the BGPM and the Hamro Party, even though Anit Thapa has an edge in the rural belts of the hills, especially in the 15 GTA seats under the Kurseong assembly constituency,” Pancham told EastMojo.
Bimal Gurung’s political flip-flops over the past five years are proving to be costly.
Until 2017, Gurung was with the BJP and helped the saffron party to win two consecutive Lok Sabha polls for the Darjeeling parliamentary seat and the 2019 Darjeeling assembly by-poll.
But then, he joined forces with the Trinamool Congress ahead of the 2021 Bengal assembly election.
Will a surging Hamro Party, which has found takers among the desperate youngsters within the Gorkhas of Darjeeling hills, pitchfork the fledgling party to political power?
Will Anit Thapa, with better political machinery at his disposal, manage to retain the power he wielded, albeit with a little help from the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government?
Or will fence-sitters, who have seemingly boycotted the polls, play spoilsport by splitting votes?
The answer will be sealed in the ballot boxes on June 26.
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