Ever since the Gorkhaland agitation gained momentum earlier this month, the BJP has appeared to be in a bind. A week ago, BJP chief Amit Shah said the party had not yet made up its mind on the demand for statehood. On Tuesday, however, general secretary and in-charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya said that the party is against the creation of a separate state in the Darjeeling hills though it wants to help “protect the identity and culture of the Gorkhas and address their development concerns”. This nuancing of position is unlikely to impress the BJP’s ally, the Gorkha Jan Morcha (GJM), which is leading the agitation. BJP nominees have been winning the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009, riding on the GJM’s support. BJP MP S.S. Ahluwalia had declared support for the statehood demand at the onset of the agitation but the party refused to back him, keeping in mind the opposition to it in the Bengal plains.
The BJP’s dilemma arises, ironically, from its success, its growing influence in the region. When the party was still a marginal force in West Bengal, it could afford to support the Gorkhaland cause. But the picture has changed remarkably in recent years. The BJP has been growing in West Bengal, and now, also being the party of government at the Centre, its response to the Gorkhaland demand must factor in the risk of political marginalisation in the hills or plains. In the past, the Congress faced a similar predicament. The onus was on the Congress, as the main pole of national politics, to reconcile competing interests and claims of opposing groups, propose solutions and forge consensus. The Congress regime was successful in reorganising state boundaries along linguistic principles in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the division of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 turned out to be disastrous for the party. Though every major political party in the state had come around in favour of the creation of Telangana, the Congress had to bear the brunt of public disquiet because of the disruptions caused by the division. The formation of the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand under the NDA in 2000 was a remarkably smooth affair.
One of the BJP’s future challenges will lie in reconciling the demands of federalism with a worldview that promotes a strong centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken of cooperative federalism in an effort to bring the Centre and state on the same page in administrative matters. But in a broader political sense, the BJP’s federal challenge may only just have begun.