The triangular battle in Darjeeling marks a first for a seat monopolised for three decades by one ethnic group or its successor.
Of 13 candidates, the three major contenders are the BJP’s S S Ahluwalia who has the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s backing, footballer Bhaichung Bhutia who is contesting on a Trinamool Congress ticket, and Prof M P Lama, a former vice chancellor of Sikkim University and a former minister in that state who is now contesting independently.
The GJM claims the largest support base. When it supported the BJP’s Jaswant Singh in 2009, he had won 52 per cent of the votes polled. Its base is stronger in the three assembly segments of the hills (Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Kurseong) than in the four of the plains (Matigara-Naxalbari, Siliguri, Phansidawa, Chopra) with the Trinamool Congress holding three of these assembly seats and an independent having won the fourth.
Challenged now by Bhutia and Lama, the GJM admits it faces its toughest fight yet. “They are trying to break our support base by giving them money. Mamata Banerjee has played divisive politics with the hill population,” says GJM president Bimal Gurung.
“But the people are with us. The BJP has mentioned small states in their manifesto and S S Ahluwalia will go to Parliament and raise the issue of Gorkhaland,” he adds. “Bhutia is a footballer and not a politician and should have been fielded from Sikkim. And people in the villages don’t know Lama.”
Gurung himself is facing discontent in the hills with many upset with his decision to rejoin the Gorkha Territorial Authority as chief executive; they see it as a climbdown from the 40-day shutdown he enforced on the hills.
“People suffered but hoped the GJM would continue with the Gorkhaland agitation. But they withdrew the strike and again joined the GTA. Since then, there have been signs of anti-incumbency,” says a member of the Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce.
“Each of the three candidates stands an equal chance. Voting for the Trinamool’s Bhutia means bringing peace and development, while voting for Lama means hoping for a separate state but without a shutdown,” adds the member. “Earlier we had only the GJM and no other party could dare campaign. Now democracy has returned to the hills.”
Bhutia, for his part, says, “Gorkhaland is not possible. A movement for a separate state will never solve the problems of the hills.”
Subash Ghising, whose GNLF held the monopoly before the GJM emerged, has returned to Darjeeling. He is yet to declare which party he will support. The district’s Trinamool chief, Rajen Mukhiya, says his party has made him several requests, while M P Lama too has tried to woo Ghising. And Bimal Gurung says, “I have requested Ghising not to support any non-Gorkha candidate as it would tarnish his image.” M G Subba, a GNLF central committee member, says, “Our leader is yet to decide, but he is against the GJM.”
Lama, who has held 131 public meetings in four months, calls the GJM a party without an issue. “Gurung has no issue to talk about, which is why they are yet to hold a public meeting. The Trinamool is full of false promises,” Lama says. “We have five important issues: no bandh, no shutdown of schools, a three-tier panchayat system that has been nonexistent for 30 years, minimum wages for tea garden workers, and above all a separate state that will not be exclusive to Gorkhas but for all communities.”