Will the results of the GTA polls bring stability in Darjeeling hills?
Anit Thapa

Siliguri: Perseverance pays and the reward is sweet to savour. To his detractors, Anit Thapa may have been another ‘would be’ challenger—who they said, had the misfortune of losing elections.

But the dyed-in-the-wool politician, who had for decades quietly waited, watched from the sidelines of the fractured Gorkha political arena in turbulent Darjeeling hills, all the time working on a strategy and weighing his options. 

The willy Gorkha leader has been honing his political acumen, nursing his ambition, and waiting for the right opportunity.

The fifty-something Thapa, who had lost four successive elections since 2017, bucked the trend on June 26, 2022.

He was fifth time lucky in his electoral battle—testing victory and taking his fledgling party to comfortably cross the majority mark with 27 seats in the 45-member GTA Sabha.

Since 2017, Thapa lost four successive elections: the 2019 Lok Sabha and the Darjeeling assembly by-polls, the Bengal assembly elections in 2021 and the Darjeeling municipality polls in 2022.

In 2017, Anit Thapa and his comrade Binay Tamang broke away from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) led by their mentor and Gorkha strongman Bimal Gurung at the height of the 104-day Darjeeling hill shutdown.

In 2017, the Anit Thapa–Binay Tamang duo ran a parallel faction of the GJM after splitting from Bimal Gurung after the GJM supremo revived the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.

The duo opposed Gurung’s call for the shutdown—which the Gorkha strongman said was in protest of the “Bengal government’s brutality”.

Gurung resigned from GTA—a semi-autonomous body set up in 2012—where he was the chief executive due to a tripartite agreement between the Centre, the West Bengal government and the GJM. 

Gurung, wanted for a series of criminal cases, went into hiding, leaving a leadership vacuum in Gorkha politics—which the Thapa-Tamang duo readily grabbed.

GTA: A brief timeline 

Gurung’s GJM had swept the first GTA election in 2012, and he was elected the chief executive officer of the autonomous body. 

In 2017, Gurung resigned from GTA in protest along with other office bearers as the statehood agitation gathered steam. 

After the Thapa-Tamang duo split with Gurung, they aligned with the Mamata Banerjee-led state government and the GTA board was reconstituted. 

Tamang, who headed the parallel GJM faction, was appointed as the chairperson of the board of administrators and Thapa, his deputy.

In 2019, after Tamang resigned from the GTA to contest in the Darjeeling assembly election with the support of the TMC, Anit Thapa replaced him as head of the semi-autonomous body. 

For the next couple of years, Thapa was content being Binay Tamang’s deputy in the party as well as on the board of administrators of the GTA.

Late in 2021, Thapa broke away from his comrade-in-arms Tamang and launched the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM). 

Tamang also resigned from the GJM faction the duo headed, sounding the death knell of the parallel GJM faction. Tamang joined the Trinamool Congress .

Ahead of the 2021 assembly election, the Mamata Banerjee government dissolved the Thapa-led board of administrators and appointed a senior state bureaucrat to head the GTA.

Thapa’s emergence as a leader 

Thapa’s decisive win in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) polls on June 26 didn’t just cement his position as an emerging Gorkha leader. He also won the trust of most of the Gorkha people and their aspirations, say political analysts and commentators.

Thapa’s fledgling BGPM managed to edge out another rising Gorkha political party headed by entrepreneur-turned-social activist-turned-politician Ajoy Edwards’ Hamro Party—that was gung-ho over its recent performance in the Darjeeling civic polls.

Edwards’ Hamro Party had in March won the Darjeeling municipality elections, buy could only bag eight seats in the GTA. 

The Hamro Party was the only party to contest all the 45 GTA seats. 

Thapa’s BGPM contested 35 seats out of 45 GTA seats, leaving 10 seats to the Trinamool Congress in an unofficial seat-sharing deal.

The BGPM, like Edwards’ Hamro Party, is also new, but Anit Thapa, who has suffered a string of electoral defeats unlike Edwards, started the party with a clean slate, says political analyst and educationist Amar Singh Rai.

“Anit’s party like Ajoy Edwards’ is new. The first election that the BGPM fought—in the Darjeeling municipality election—was a setback for the seven-month-old BGPM. 

“The second, the GTA election, was in much a wider area except for certain seats in the urban belt of Darjeeling. Thapa had greater success due to his party’s wider rural connect,” Rai, a former member of the West Bengal legislative assembly and a former chairman of the Darjeeling municipality, told Eastmojo by phone from Darjeeling.

“Unlike Anit Thapa, Ajoy Edwards, who was with the GNLF earlier, has been on a winning spree, while Anit had a string of electoral defeats. 

“Edwards’ Hamro Party has found a support base within the urban voters, particularly the youngsters,” Rai said, adding that the Hamro Party’s tally of eight seats is all in the urban belt, including six seats in areas under the Darjeeling municipality.

“Edwards’ party managed to win only two rural seats-Bijanbari and Takdah-Glenburn constituencies in Darjeeling but drew a nil in either Kurseong, Kalimpong or the Mirik belt,” said the veteran politician.

Edwards’ Hamro Party – the new kid in Gorkha politics

Many in the hills attribute Edwards’ Hamro Party’s failure to extend its support base in the rural constituencies.

“For a six-month-old party, Edwards’ Hamro Party performance is commendable. However, the new party lacks grassroots support, and may have been a tad overconfident, fresh from its astounding win in the Darjeeling municipality,” a senior official with the PWD roads and buildings department, which is under the GTA, told EastMojo.

“Hill politics have over the years been one-sided affairs. The party which controlled the semi-autonomous hill bodies like the GTA and its previous avatar had the advantage of controlling politics in the hills,” the official, who did not want to be named being a government employee and not authorised to comment on politics, pointed out.

Gurung’s GJM had total control of the first elected GTA Board since it was constituted in 2012.

Now, with the Hamro Party and a handful of independents on the GTA board, there should be better accountability and transparency in development work, and proper utilisation of funds, the official hoped.

The Hamro Party, fresh from its maiden electoral victory –in the Darjeeling civic polls—failed to match Anit Thapa’s political penetration in rural and inaccessible, and remote corners in the hills from where the bulk of the electorate come, say political analysts.

Edwards’ Hamro Party has found support from the urban youngsters but has not cut much favour with the rural populace until now, says Rai a veteran in Gorkha politics.

Hamro Party’s chief Edwards, conceded defeat, promising to work as a strong opposition political landscape in the hills.

“Earlier there never was a strong opposition in hill politics, but now we will have eight people and independents too,” Edwards told media persons in Darjeeling after the results were declared. 

Besides Thapa’s overwhelming win, another surprise in the GTA election was the emergence of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).

The TMC, which, until now, had very little political visibility in the Darjeeling hills, put up a strong performance. 

The party won five of the 10 seats it contested.

The Mamata Banerjee-led party’s only electoral success in Gorkha politics was winning the Mirik municipality election in 2017. 

The TMC continued to maintain its stronghold in Mirik, winning three of the five seats from the sub-division, says Rai.

Bengal’s ruling party also has won a seat each in Darjeeling and Kalimpong.

Though political analysts say that for the present, the Gorkha identity politics may have taken a backseat, and Thapa and his political alliance with the ruling TMC in the state may not have a dream run.

The general perception says the party in power at the GTA has a favourable advantage in controlling Gorkha politics in the hills.

Unlike the first GTA board election in 2012, when the then undisputed Gorkha strongman and GJM supremo Bimal Gurung’s writ was ultimate.

The scenario may not be the same for Gurung’s protegee-turned-foe Anit Thapa. The politically wily, Kurseong-based Thapa will have to play his cards well to emerge as the undisputed Gorkha leader. 

Thapa, who has played second fiddle to Tamang and then parted ways to float the BGPM, is well aware of pitfalls in the fragmented Gorkha political landscape and will have to tread with caution, say Gorkha political watchers. 

Changing contours of Gorkha politics 

The BGPM and TMC combine’s win in the crucial GTA polls, besides bringing a change of guard in Gorkha politics, has also changed the contours of the political landscape in Darjeeling hills. 

Identity has been the mainstay of Gorkha politics for more than four decades, with the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland being a focal point. 

Though the Gorkhaland bogey is there to stay. 

The time-tested formula of raising the sentimental issue of Gorkhaland during successive elections reaped rich dividends for Gorkha political parties.

Aware that playing the development card over sentiments does have political ramifications, as identity is still a major issue in the hills, Anit Tamang addressing a victory rally in Darjeeling on June 30, did raise the Gorkhaland issue.

But Thapa’s tone was more subdued. 

The BGPM chief said: On assuming the charge of the GTA, the body’s Sabha would pass a resolution to open a dialogue on Gorkhaland. 

Thapa said that his party will not go into confrontation with the state government staying in Bengal. “The state government can’t create another state. 

“It is the Centre, which can create a new state,” Thapa told his supporters. 

The results give a clear mandate of the Gorkha people’s desperation for lasting stability and development in the strategically vulnerable border region. 

The Gorkha people are tired of the shenanigans of Gorkha leaders’ identity politics. 

The mandate, political analysts and commentators say is a vote for ‘change and development and welfare’.

Though a clutch of mainstream pro-identity Gorkha political parties, including the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the BJP and its allies stayed away from the GTA polls.

The main contenders for the control of the semi-autonomous GTA—Anit Thapa and Ajay Edwards—both of who had launched their respective parties a little more than six months—fought the polls on the stability and development plank–instead of politics of Gorkha identity and often-touted permanent political solution (PPS) for the Gorkha people.

Voters in the hills voted for development rather than identity politics, which has taken a backseat, for the time being, feel political observers.

The emergence of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the hills is partly to some extent due to a slew of welfare schemes introduced by Mamata Banerjee, including the now popular ‘Duare Sarkar’ or the government at the doorstep scheme.

That the TMC, which has managed to get a toehold in hill politics, is by itself a big development. For a party that was a political pariah in the Gorkha political landscape is an emergence of a new political contour, say political analysts and observers.

“The TMC and the BGPM unofficial seat-sharing deal has paid off,” says Rai, the former politician.

“Anit Thapa’s party did not directly contest in 10 seats, where they put their political machinery behind the TMC candidates.,” Rai, the former Darjeeling civic chief pointed out.

“Binay Tamang, who recently dissolved the GJM faction to join the TMC, surprised many—ending Thapa’s unsuccessful elector run.” 

Though the question of Gorkha identity politics will always linger in the hill political landscape. 

The Gorkhaland bogey is unlikely to fade into oblivion; it has only taken a backseat for the present, says political observers.

“Anit Thapa may have placed the development cart ahead of identity politics. 

“He has understood that it should be developed first and then Gorkha identity,” feels Rai, who was elected as a member of the legislative assembly from Bimal Gurung’s GJM. 

“Are we ready to take up the mandate of running our state?” Rai asked about the demand for a separate Gorkhaland?

“Do we need to prepare better and then go for statehood?” the veteran leader questioned.

“The demand for Gorkhaland has become like a begging bowl and is an emotional issue, which is going on for ages. Neither the Centre keeps its promises nor it is serious about the Gorkha identity issue…but just hoodwinks the people on the separate Gorkhaland demand,” rued Rai, the former MLA from Darjeeling and an academician.

“I tell people that our ideologies may differ –with the state government—but you should have a channel open for a working relationship with the state government,” he added.

The Anit Thapa-led BGPM’s win was not due to any commitment but due to the immense money and muscle power he manage to build-up due to the absence of mainstream Gorkha political parties, says a political observer, who did not wish to be named.

“Anit Thapa’s win was made easy by mainstream Gorkha parties, including Bimal Gurung’s GJM, the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which had stayed away for the GTA polls,” said the political observer quoted above.

“While it is commendable on Thapa’s part to be able to mobilise and lure former GJM and GNLF supporters in the rural belt…Thapa got an open field to contest in due to the boycott of the GTA polls,” the observer said.

“Even though a host of Gorkha parties stayed away from the GTA polls, the leaders of these parties did not whole-heartedly campaign for boycotting the polls,” he said.

Even though Bimal Gurung’s GJM officially stayed away from the polls, the party had propped up several independent candidates. Two such candidates backed by Gurung’s GJM were among the five independent candidates who won the GTA Sabha polls, pointed out Rai.

One seat won by Gurung backed an independent candidate from Tukvar, the home constituency of the Bimal Gurung, Rai pointed out.

“Bimal Gurung is losing hold on hill politics. He cannot win but he can still play an adverse role in making people lose,” Rai, who was elected as a lawmaker on a GJM ticket, told Eastmojo.

The impact of Didi

Both political observers admit that the TMC’s gaining a toehold has to some extent been the effect of Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s popular welfare schemes.

What Anit Thapa has grasped well, is the need to develop a close working relationship with the state government, say, political analysts.

“Anit Thapa has learnt not to come in confrontation with the state government, a fact that Bimal Gurung learnt quite late,” Rai told Eastmojo.

Mamata Banerjee’s welfare schemes, including the Duare Sarkar –the government at your doorstep – and a slew of other women and girl-child-centric welfare schemes like Sasthya Saathi or health insurance scheme, the Kanyashree among others have found favours with the Gorkha people in the hills.

“Mamata Banerjee-led state government’s welfare schemes have benefitted the hill people a lot even though some like bicycles for girl students may not be suited for hill students,” agreed Rai.

“The Duare Sarkar, the health insurance, and Kanyashree—a monetary scheme for girl students—schemes are immensely popular in the hills,” said Rai.

To some extent Mamata Banerjee’s welfare schemes have made an impact in the hills, the political observer quoted earlier observed, 

“The state and the new GTA board members should try to put an end to nepotism and break nexus between the contractor and political leaders—that has plagued the hills for last three decades,” said the political observer. But anyone familiar with the region’s politics knows that it sounds easier said than done. 

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