Making his first public appearance in three years, Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung Wednesday broke ties with the NDA, saying the BJP-led central government had not fulfilled its promise of Gorkhaland. He extended his party’s support to the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) for the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, and vowed to give a befitting reply to the BJP for letting down the people of the hills.
Gurung had been absconding since 2017 after he was charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in connection with a grenade attack at Kalimpong Police Station and an explosion in Darjeeling’s Chowk Bazaar area. This was during the time he orchestrated a 104-day shutdown in the hills demanding separate statehood — a longstanding demand of Gorkhas living in the Darjeeling hills.
Statehood demand still hot potato for TMC
GJM’s alliance with the Trinamool Congress has upended the political calculation in the Hills ahead of next year’s Assembly elections in West Bengal. While Bimal Gurung's backing of the TMC is likely to come as a boost to Mamata Banerjee in the hill districts of north Bengal, and a possible setback for the BJP, the confusion of each party’s stand vis-a-vis the demand for Gorkhaland statehood could be a political minefield in an election year.
With Assembly polls in West Bengal due in eight months, Bimal Gurung’s GJM severing ties with the BJP will lead to paradigm shift in Bengal politics.
The developments leading to Bimal Gurung’s exit from NDA
On September 19 this year, BJP MP from Darjeeling Raju Bista, under pressure from GJM leaders, raised the Gorkhaland matter during the monsoon session of Parliament. He said, “I requested the Union government to expedite the process of ascertaining Permanent Political Solution to fulfil the long pending demand of the people from Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars regions. I request Parliament to take cognisance of the fact that the demand for Gorkhaland state is a long-pending demand of the people from Darjeeling Hills, Terai, and Dooars.”
Following his request, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) invited the West Bengal government, the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA), and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for a tripartite meeting to “discuss issues related to Gorkhaland” in Delhi on October 7. However, the Centre was quick to change the subject of the meeting, stating the agenda had been revised from “issues related to Gorkhaland” to “issues related to Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA)”.
The change in stance, however, did not go down well with the GJM leadership, especially the Gurung-led faction. The GJM began questioning the intent of the Centre in fulfilling its long-standing demand.
In the 2019 Sankalp Patra (election manifesto), the BJP had said, “We will recognise the 11 left out Indian Gorkha sub-tribes as Schedule Tribes. We are also committed to implementing reservation in the Legislative Assembly of Sikkim for Limboo and Tamang tribes. We are committed to working towards finding a permanent political solution to the issue of Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri Terai and Dooars region.”
This promise was made by the BJP in its 2014 and 2009 election manifestos as well. However, despite winning the Darjeeling Parliamentary seat successively since 2009, the BJP has not been able to address the half-a-century old issue. Dilip Ghosh, Bengal BJP chief, had earlier said the party does not believe in the idea of a separate state of Gorkhaland. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
Why does GJM matter in West Bengal politics?
Since its formation in 2007, the support of GJM is crucial in hill politics. It is the most popular and powerful party in Darjeeling hills, which can swing an election in anyone’s favour. The party, created by Gurung, formed an alliance with the BJP in 2009, helping Jaswant Singh win the Lok Sabha polls. In 2011, GJM won three Assembly seats in Darjeeling district and extended its support to an Independent candidate, Wilson Champamari, who won the election from Dooars region.
In 2014, the TMC made attempts to gain the support of GJM for its candidate Baichung Bhutia in the Darjeeling constituency. However, Gurung supported BJP candidate S S Ahluwalia and helped him win the election with the hope that the NDA government at the Centre would finally address the party’s demands.
In 2016, the GJM again won three Assembly seats from Darjeeling and once again intensified its demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. However, this time, the TMC tried to break the unity of the people of the hills, engineering defection. Following the violent agitation in 2017, the TMC successfully divided the GJM, leading to the creation of two factions — one headed by Binoy Tamang that pledged support to the TMC, and the other led by Bimal Gurung which supported the BJP.
The Gurung faction helped BJP candidate Raju Bista win the 2019 Lok Sabha election, dealing a massive jolt to the TMC’s hope of conquering the hills.
Why does the TMC need the support of GJM now?
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 18 seats in West Bengal, including 7 of the 8 constituencies in north Bengal. The TMC drew a blank in north Bengal. Following its success, the saffron party has made inroads in these districts.
Recently, national BJP president J P Nadda held several meetings with party leaders, MPs, MLAs and other groups to chalk out a blueprint for next year’s 2021 state Assembly polls. The party also set a target of winning 50 of the total 56 Assembly seats from eight districts of north Bengal.
Finding itself in a corner, the TMC employed party MP Abhishek Banerjee and political analyst Prashant Kishor, who discreetly held meetings with party functionaries in north Bengal recently. This was done to revive the party and gain some of the lost ground.
Winning the support of the GJM could jeopardise BJP’s grand electoral plan in north Bengal ahead of 2021 polls. The BJP could be weakened in the hills, while the GJM’s support may help the TMC win six Assembly seats in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.
This would give a major boost to TMC’s plans for north Bengal, as winning seats in that region is essential to receive an absolute majority in 294-seat West Bengal Legislative Assembly. By scaling the north Bengal hills, the ruling party will be in a position to send out a message of unity across the state and sharpen its attack against the BJP for harbouring divisive ideas about West Bengal.
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