A multi-cornered fight in the hills may completely alter the politics of the region

Constituency watch: West Bengal

For the first time in years, the Lok Sabha elections in Darjeeling will be a multi-cornered fight and the outcome may completely alter the politics of the region.

Over the past three decades, politics in the three hill subdivisions — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — has centred around the demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland.

With very little or no dissenting voices, pro-Gorkhaland forces enjoy almost complete support in the hills. But the 2014 Lok Sabha election will be different.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the single most powerful political force here since 2007, is facing a stiff challenge from the Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in West Bengal.

The candidates

The GJM has decided to support BJP national vice-president Surinder Singh Ahluwalia. Mr. Ahluwalia has assured the electorate that the party would “examine and appropriately consider” the long-standing demand of Gorkhas, adivasis and others in Darjeeling and in the Dooars region. The TMC, on the other hand, has nominated former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia as its candidate for the seat. Both Mr. Bhutia and football are quite popular among the youth in the hills. While the GJM’s campaign is directed at the issue of “Gorkha identity”, the TMC is focussing on development and targeting the hegemony of “one party rule” in the hills.

The TMC has hit out against the GJM-BJP combine for trying to divide West Bengal. The GJM controls the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, a regional autonomous body, formed in accordance with a tripartite agreement inked by the GJM, the State government and the Centre in July 2011.

‘The last fight’

According to GJM president Bimal Gurung, the election is a question of the survival of the party as it will be “probably the last fight for Gorkhaland.” Until a few years ago, only the GJM colours dominated the region. But the TMC has made inroads; now, the winding roads of the hills are dotted with its flags and posters. The State government has been successful in reaching out to smaller communities such as the Lepchas and the Tamangs and set up development boards for them. These steps have paid dividends and the party has considerable presence in the hills today.

The electorate

Of the 14.15 lakh voters in the constituency, about six lakh voters are concentrated in three Assembly segments. The remaining eight lakh belong to four Assembly constituencies of which Matigara (Naxalbari) is reserved for the SCs, Phansidewa for the STs, and Chopra has a strong minority presence. The political plurality of the constituency and the unique geography makes the constituency the most keenly watched electoral fight among the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State.

As the elections draw closer, several key players have emerged as crucial factors in the poll arithmetic, making the contest intriguing. Mahendra P. Lama, former Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim University and a local, is contesting the polls as an Independent. Prof. Lama has targeted the GJM for not being committed to the Gorkhaland cause. If he draws support in the hills, he might eat into the party’s vote share.

Another development that has to be factored in is the re-emergence of Subhas Ghising, president of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, on the political scene. Mr. Ghising ruled the hills from the late 1980s to 2006, before being driven out by the GJM. Mr. Ghising has decided to put his weight behind the TMC candidate, strengthening the party’s chances.

The BJP, meanwhile, is trying to increase its support base among the business community of Siliguri and adjoining areas that fall under Darjeeling. But the question remains whether the party can bridge the hill-plain divide that runs deep in the electorate. The GJM-BJP combine won the 2009 polls with a margin of 2.68 lakh voters. Though Mr. Gurung does not rule out splitting of GJM votes, he is confident of the alliance sailing through with a margin of over 1.5 lakh votes.

The TMC leadership claims that the polls will usher in a new beginning in the hills and start the countdown to the GJM’s decline. Sceptics, however, believe that a victory for the BJP-GJM combine or the TMC will have a little meaning if political complexities in the region lead to new times of uncertainty.