May 26, 2022 12:49:32 pm
The election to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), set to be held after a decade, has emerged as the latest flashpoint in Darjeeling Hills, with former allies BJP and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) finding themselves on the same side of the dispute. This comes a year after the Bimal Gurung-led GJM severed ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and allied with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for the Assembly elections.
The government on Tuesday announced that the election to the autonomous body would be held on June 26. But, the following day, the BJP announced that it would boycott the polls. The GJM, which was formed in 2007 with the demand for a separate Gorakhaland state and was in power in the GTA for several years, also came out against the state government and Gurung began an indefinite fast in protest.
The BJP, which has held the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat since 2009, and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), its ally, boycotted an all-party meeting chaired by Jalpaiguri Divisional Commissioner A R Bardhan to discuss the election, labelling the process a farce. Gurung’s outfit, however, attended the meeting and requested the government to defer the polls. But the government, refusing to heed the request, announced the election date and said votes would be counted on June 29.
After beginning his indefinite fast, Gurung told reporters, “Our first demand was to oppose the GTA election and to include 396 Gurkha-majority mouzas (territorial units) in the GTA. All demands must be met first before the election is held. As we are not on the same page with the state government on holding the GTA polls, we have decided to oppose it. I have begun an indefinite fast to register my protest.”
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Gurung had written a letter to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on May 14, requesting her to put the GTA election in abeyance till the GJM’s Memorandum of Proposal (MoP) was implemented. The MoP contained the demand to include the Gurkha-majority mouzas under the GTA’s ambit.
The GJM has said the MoP also calls on the government to honour “in letter and spirit” a Memorandum of Agreement that was signed in 2011. The proposals also include transfer of all the departments mentioned in the 2011 document to the GTA. Some of them have yet to be transferred, Gurung claimed in the letter.
The GJM’s move comes against the backdrop of the party losing ground since the entry of the Hamro Party, led by former GNLF leader Ajoy Edwards, into Hill politics. A faction of former leaders, including Binay Tamang and Rohit Sharma, has merged with the TMC. In February, the Hamro Party sprang a surprise by winning the Darjeeling Municipality. It bagged 18 of the 32 seats in the civic body. In last year’s Assembly polls too, Gurung’s outfit had failed to win any seat in the Hills.
This is in stark contrast to the GJM’s position over a decade ago when its support was required to win in the Hills. In 2009, with the GJM lending support, the BJP’s Jaswant Singh had won the Lok Sabha poll from Darjeeling — at a time when the party had a negligible presence in the state. In 2011, while the GJM won three Assembly seats in the Hills, its support helped an Independent, Wilson Champamari, get elected from the Dooars region. The party helped the BJP win the Darjeeling parliamentary seat in 2014 too and its sway in the region continued in the 2016 state polls. But fissures appeared in the GJM after the violent agitation for Gorkhaland in 2017, providing the TMC a way in. It took the TMC four more years to finally plant its feet in the Hills and now it is on much firmer ground as the Binay Tamang faction is now part of it and Gurung seems politically diminished.
The BJP, too, is struggling to stay afloat in the state. It has lost several key leaders across West Bengal to the TMC since the 2021 Assembly election defeat, and infighting in the state unit continues unabated.
The BJP has not won a single major election, local polls or by-polls, since its electoral slide began last year.
Backing Gurung’s fast, BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar said, “The GTA election cannot resolve the issues of Darjeeling Hills. A three-tier panchayat poll can solve some issues. We are contemplating moving the court against this decision to hold the GTA election. When a final decision is taken, we will let you know.”
Darjeeling MP Raju Bista said the BJP would boycott the polls as the GTA had failed to fulfil people’s aspirations. “The GTA was rejected by the people of Darjeeling Hills, Terai, and the Dooars region in 2017 itself. There is no point holding an election,” he added.
But not all support a boycott. Apart from the Trinamool Congress, Hill-based outfits such as the Hamro Party, the Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha, the Jana Andolan Party, and the Bharatiya Gorkha Suraksha Parishad are in favour of GTA elections.
Lashing out at Gurung and the BJP, TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said, “The GTA election will give a level playing field to Hills outfits and a chance for people to choose their own representatives. It is a step towards restoring the democratic process. But some parties such as the BJP and the others are trying to stall the process, fearing their defeat. The democratic process must continue amidst this opposition.”
The GTA was formed in 2011 to govern Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, and some mouzas in the Siliguri subdivision. The election for the body was last held in 2012. According to the government, the 2017 agitation and the Covid-19 pandemic have not allowed it to organise the elections. There are 45 elected members in the GTA Sabha and the Governor nominates five. The GJM, the biggest Hill party a decade ago, had then swept the GTA elections last time by winning all the seats.
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