Can the will of the hill people to retain their autonomy prevail or will it get quashed under the iron will of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and her political juggernaut?
There are two Lok Sabha seats in India that political observers and analysts across the nation will have their eyes set on -- Amethi in Uttar Pradesh and Darjeeling in north Bengal. Both the seats are symbolically very important, and the stakes are much higher than what meets the eye.
Traditionally, Amethi has voted for a Congress candidate and is seen as the citadel of the Congress’ first family – the Gandhis. However, despite carrying the tag of a VIP constituency for decades, Amethi has remained one of the least developed constituencies in all of Uttar Pradesh. In the 2014 general elections, the BJP had fielded Smriti Irani against Gandhi family scion Rahul Gandhi from Amethi. Irani lost the seat by over one lakh votes. However, for a complete novice to have lost by only one lakh votes, prompted BJP to view the seat as winnable. Ever since, Irani has nurtured the constituency by conducting regular visits, implementing projects and connecting with the people at the grassroots, while Rahul has been conspicuous by his absence. This time around, Irani and the BJP could be giving Rahul and the Congress a run for their money.
In contrast, Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat has always been dominated by hill politics. Strong regional aspiration for a separate state of Gorkhaland has seen the hill populace vote en bloc, so whoever is the given candidate supported by the dominant hill party usually wins from the seat. Following the bloody agitation for Gorkhaland in 1986-88, the Congress and even the CPI(M) have won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat due to the blessings and support of the then dominant political force, Late Subash Ghising, and his Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). For the past two consecutive terms, however, with Jaswant Singh (2009-14) and SS Ahluwalia (2014-19), the BJP has tasted electoral success in the region because of support from the dominant political force Bimal Gurung and his Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
Tragically, for GJM and BJP, both Jaswant Singh and SS Ahluwalia were more or less absentee MPs, who in the later years of their terms stopped visiting the hills altogether.
Despite being in power, the BJP didn’t even bother to implement a single noteworthy project in the region. The absence of Darjeeling MP SS Ahluwalia during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation, and him not even bothering to visit the region once since then, has been a constant source of anger and dismay towards the BJP, among the local populace.
On the other hand, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has done all it can – from killing those supporting Gorkhaland statehood, slapping hundreds of cases against Gorkhaland leaders, suppressing freedom of speech and expression, to promoting “police raj” by smothering democratic institutions and constitutional provisions in the region – to end both BJP’s control over the constituency and the existing demand for Gorkhaland statehood.
Stuck in the middle
While BJP President Amit Shah wants to win the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat again, TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee is in no mood to lose. Amidst the ego clash between two equally obstinate political parties, BJP and TMC, caught in the middle are the people of Darjeeling, Terai and the Dooars.
For the locals, this year’s general elections are literally turning out to be a choice between the devil and the deep sea. Both the TMC and the BJP have completely failed the people here. Yet these two parties, thanks to fractured hill mandate, have emerged as the two frontline contestants in the 2019 Darjeling Lok Sabha seat race.
Back in 2014, Narendra Modi had made an instant connect with the people here. He had talked about Darjeeling tea, and had evoked his “chaiwala” past. He had ended his speech by talking about “Gorkhaon ka sapna mera sapna – the Gorkha dreams are my dreams” -- warmly received amidst a thunderous applause. Applauses that day turned into votes the next month, helping the then BJP candidate SS Ahluwalia win the elections with over four lakh votes.
In the 2016 legislative assembly elections, Darjeeling turned out to be the only district in West Bengal that didn’t elect even a single TMC MLA.
This was like a personal insult to Mamata, who had invested heavily in Darjeeling, Terai and the Dooars – both her time and money to create fissures among the populace. She had by then formed 15 caste-specific ‘Development Board’ for the hill tribes, one ‘Development Board’ for the Adivasis, and one ‘Development Board’ for the Rajbongshis. Mamata had in total created 17 government-funded caste-specific NGOs (all the so-called ‘Development Boards’ are registered under Societies Registration Act) and funneled money into electoral system through them. Yet, she had failed to win even a single seat in Darjeeling district.
This rankled her very much, but smart as she is, she understood the basic fact about Darjeeling and the neighbouring districts -- whoever controls the hills, controls these districts. That is when she started to instigate the then dominant political group GJM and egged them for a fight. The West Bengal government refused to devolve power to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), and the functions that were actually accorded to GTA were accorded to the district administration. Like a boa constrictor, step by step, Mamata tightened her grip and choked GTA, and this then left the field ripe for a showdown between Mamata and Bimal Gurung, who was heading the GTA.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was when the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government declared that Bengali language will be made compulsory across West Bengal. By design, this led to widespread protests in the hills. Amidst the protests, Mamata declared that she will conduct a West Bengal cabinet meeting in Darjeeling. This was a bait to ensnare Bimal Gurung and his followers, and they fell for it hook, line and sinker. They protested against Mamata and her cabinet meeting, which was by design met by violent crackdown. One thing led to another and next thing we know alleged bombs start exploding in the middle of the night, and Bimal Gurung has been labelled a terrorist and charges filed against him and his top lieutenants under the dreaded UAPA.
Personally, I feel the state was very well prepared with a long-term action plan.
As Bimal Gurung and his lieutenants became unavailable to the public, having gone underground, Mamata conveniently foisted Binoy Tamang, Anit Thapa, Amar Rai and Sanchaman Limbu, and a few others to run the hill affairs. These people were appointed as the GTA Board of Governors (legality of which is actually questionable), and Mamata thought she had ensued a coup d’état and peaceful transference of power from an antagonistic Gorkha Bimal Gurung to a set of pliant Gorkhas.
But in all their calculations, they miscalculated one important factor – public sentiment and support.
A senior electronic media journalist based in Kolkata had back in 2017 told me what a masterstroke it was on the part of Mamata government to instate Binoy Tamang and group. When I had reminded her about them “lacking public support”, she had in all innocence asked, “But isn’t that how it works? First the leaders join, and then gradually the followers.”
It has nearly been two years since, the politicians have joined, but the mass are still awaiting the normalisation of situation – by normalisation, I mean, the hill people are waiting for hill affairs to be left to their able hands, instead of being run by a group of West Bengal government-appointed Board of Administrators, who are widely viewed as “mere puppets”.
The missing link
All this while, the BJP kept mum. They didn’t speak even one word of sympathy or support. Darjeeling, which had given the BJP two MPs when they didn’t have a toe hold in Bengal, had sacrificed the Gorkhas and one MP seat in favour of 41 from the rest of Bengal. I feel that the BJP leadership viewed the situation from the electoral perspective. Perhaps they thought that any support to the Gorkhas at that stage could be viewed as a support to “break Bengal”, and they feared losing rest of Bengal. They did nothing. Such was their nervousness that the very MP who had been elected with overwhelming votes by the people of Darjeeling failed to visit the hills. He hasn’t, till date, come back to the hills.
This has been widely seen as a treachery on the part of the BJP in the region.
However, despite all anger against BJP and their failure to take a stand in favour of the Gorkhas, people in the hills still seem to support Bimal Gurung, the leader who is also yet to make an appearance in the hills in person.
Amidst the cacophony of political noise, recently Bimal Gurung lead GJM has joined hands with once arch rivals Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Both these parties in turn have extended their support to BJP. Interviews given to press by both GJM and GNLF leaders reiterate that they have joined hands so that the hill mandate is not fractured, or in other words, they do not want TMC candidate to win.
Perhaps respecting the prevailing sentiments BJP denied SS Ahluwalia a ticket, and instead has nominated a 33-year-old businessman Raju Bista as their candidate. Raju is a Gorkha but was born in Manipur. While TMC has assigned ticket to their trusted Man Friday Amar Singh Rai, who was once very close to Bimal Gurung.
The national press has already started to play these upcoming elections as a Gorkha vs Gorkha fight, but everyone in the Darjeeling constituency know, those fighting are mere pawns.
To cut a long story short, Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat is a prestige battle between Amit Shah and Mamata Banerjee. Whoever wins this seat in 2019 is set to influence 21 assembly seats in the 2021 West Bengal legislative assembly elections.
Will the will of the hill people to retain their autonomy prevail or will it get quashed under the iron will of Mamata and her political juggernaut?
Only time will tell.
(Upendra M Pradhan is a Darjeeling-based political analyst and editor-at-large at The Darjeeling Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)