Dressed in a black Nehru coat, Bhaichung Bhutia kicks the ball through the goalpost from several metres away. Children surround him with their little diaries open and he gives his autograph to each of them.
“See, these are innocent people. It is so sad politicians have been cheating them for decades by promising them Gorkhaland. They hoped and hoped, they voted for their hope. But the politicians deserted them,” says Bhutia, now a Trinamool Congress candidate and campaigning at Potong village in a valley at Mirik in Darjeeling.
Bhutia, 37, stresses only development under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee can solve the problems of the hills. “I never told the people that I would bring them Gorkhaland. Leaders promising Gorkhaland are cheating them. We know Gorkhaland is not possible,” says the former India captain.
The stand fails to impress. “We are big fans of Bhutia, but we believe in Gorkhaland and he does not speak of it. He speaks of development, employment, education, health, but we want our identity,” says Vardaan Rai, assistant teacher at Potong High School
At a local club, Bhutia interacts with youth and women who complain about lack of good roads, water and healthcare. “I have earned a reputation after struggling for 20 years, and I have joined politics as I want to do something for you,” he tells them. “But I can assure I will never steal your money, never deceive you, I cannot spoil my reputation of 20 years in five years. I will work for you.”
“If we get a separate state, there will be development too,” says villager Ajay Gholey.
Bhutia had wanted to be the Trinamool’s observer for Sikkim but was made its Darjeeling candidate. “Though I have been following politics for long, it took me a lot of time to finally decide and take the plunge,” he smiles.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has rejected him as an “outsider”. “I am a son of the soil; the culture and the language are the same. How can I be an outsider?” Bhutia says. “The BJP candidate is perhaps visiting Darjeeling for the first time. And after the election, he will go back. Last time, people elected Jaswant Singh and he visited Darjeeling thrice in five years. The BJP knows Gorkhaland is not feasible. Moreover, its state unit is opposed to division of Bengal. But some BJP leaders come before the elections and make false promises.”
He adds, “I share very good relations with Bimal Gurung, M P Lama and Subhas Ghising.” He welcomes Subhas Ghising’s return to Darjeeling after five years. “Didi has brought democracy back to the hills. Ghising had not been allowed to cremate his wife here. That was a reign of terror. But now development has started.”