Kalimpong MLA Harka Bahadur Chettri’s election hopes straddle between his high-pitched criticism of his colleague-turned-rival Bimal Gurung and his supporters’ assertion that the region is witnessing a “revolution”.
Both viewpoints, says the Jan Andolan Party (JAP) president, have arisen due to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief’s “high-handedness”, whose party he quit to float one of his own in September last year.
On Thursday, before setting off on his march through the town towards the ground where a massive crowd stood under a sea of umbrellas, Chettri spoke of his rival without inhibitions.
“He (Gurung) never consulted any of us before issuing orders to everyone (in GJM) to resign in the name of attaining statehood for Gorkhaland. What bearing would a handful of MLAs resigning have had on the state government? If he really wanted to create an impact, he should have dissolved the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. That would have woken up the Centre and the state government as Darjeeling would have had no one looking after its people,” Chettri said.
At the venue, young men blowing whistles, JAP’s election symbol, follow him first up a hill and then wind down till they reach the ground.
Mangal Thapa, 27, allows the resonating sound of whistles to subside to point out his observation.
“You see what is happening here is a revolution. We are really fed up. There is no water in the summer, no roads. It is especially difficult for the young people. We are all educated here but there are no jobs. Everyone has to move out to Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune to find a job. I was a cook at a Chinese restaurant in Mumbai. I just left and came back and have now joined JAP. Why should I have to go to Mumbai to find a job?” Thapa asks.
Thapa sees hope in Chettri’s demand for Kalimpong to be carved out as a separate district.
“Then we will get the infrastructure. There will be government offices, hospitals and there will be jobs. The GJM has done nothing for us. They were corrupt and JAP is against corruption,” he says, unmindful of the allegations of misappropriation of funds that Chettri faced. A GJM worker alleges that Chettri had used his MLA funds to erect a wall on his private property.
Allegations aside, the 54-year-old MLA is considered a “polite, educated man”. He was an assistant teacher of Biology at St George’s Higher Secondary School in Pedong (Kalimpong) before he joined politics. A GJM candidate in 2011 elections, Chettri swept the polls by capturing 87.36 per cent of the total votes.
With JAP as his identification now, Chettri has a toned-down take on the GJM’s stand on Gorkhaland — a demand for a separate state for the people of Darjeeling and the Gorkhas of the Dooars.
Chettri, however, quickly identifies himself with the movement even though he is no longer with the GJM. “In my election manifesto, you will find that the very first point is the demand for Gorkhaland. It is an extremely emotional issue for the people here and it is closer to my heart as well,” he clarifies.
Political analysts say that Chettri’s move to split from the GJM was a “masterstroke by Mamata Banerjee”, the chief minister and president of Trinamool Congress.
As fissures developed between her and Gurung, Mamata quickly extended a hand towards Chettri.
The JAP chief, however, denies having any “understanding” with the TMC.
“But she did tell me that she would not field a candidate here and support me instead. If I was given more time, I would have fielded candidates everywhere. For now, though, I will just have to take kalimpong,” he says.
Who will take Kalimpong will be decided on April 17 by the voters, who say that the town will see the “toughest fight” in the hills — between Chettri and GJM’s Sarita Rai.