All roads leading to the Darjeeling hills on Saturday were lined up with posters of multiple political parties and Independents a day before elections to 45 seats of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) is scheduled.
A few years ago before every polls, the posters spoke about creation of Gorkhaland, which has been central to the politics of the hills for the past several decades. The posters this time have no one leader, one flag but details of contesting candidates and promise of development and democracy.
“Janatako chahansa, sukh, santi r samridhi [people want happiness, peace and prosperity]“ reads posters of Anit Thapa’s party Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) with the photograph of the leader and the party’s electoral symbol. The posters of the newly formed Hamro Party of Ajay Edwards also have the promise of democracy. “Ab Janatako Raj [now it is going to be rule of the people]”.
The GTA polls this season are about multiple voices and contestants and many firsts. Some political parties have openly declared that they will not contest the polls. Gorkha Janmukti Morcha president Bimal Gurung went on a hunger strike a few weeks ago, opposing polls to the GTA. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has called GTA an “unconstitutional body” and has stayed away from the polls. The hills have voted for the BJP in Assembly polls and Lok Sabha polls on the promise that the party will address long standing demands of people of the hills.
Of the 277 candidates in the poll fray in GTA, 108 are representatives of political parties and 169, which is about 60% of all the contesting candidates, are Independents. Only Hamro Party, the newly formed political outfit that sprang a surprise by winning Darjeeling municipality, a few months ago has fielded candidates on all 45 seats, Anit Thapa’s BGPM has fielded candidates on 36 seats, Trinamool Congress is contesting on 10 seats, Communist Party of India (Marxist) on 12 and Congress on five seats.
GTA, is a regional autonomous body formed as a result of a tripartite agreement between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), West Bengal government and Government of India in 2011. The polls were held in 2012 and the GJM won all 45 seats without much contest.
The regional autonomous body had turned defunct after 2017, when all the sabhasads of the GTA, including its president Bimal Gurung, resigned during the 100-day violent agitation from June- September 2017 on the demand of a separate State of Gorkhaland. Since 2017, the GTA has been largely been defunct and was being administered by bureaucrats.
“All security arrangements have been made. We have held meetings with candidates. The campaign has been very peaceful. We expect polling to be peaceful,” Darjeeling District Magistrate S. Ponnambalam told The Hindu. The District Maagistrate said that armed polling personnel will be deployed outside every 922 polling stations. A total of 1,138 sub-inspectors and assistant sub-inspectors have been deployed at the poling stations. Of the 45 GTA seats, 32 are in Darjeeling district and 13 in Kalimpong district. Seven lakh voters will be able to exercise their franchise on Sunday.
Political observers feel that though GTA may not answer to all the aspirations to the people of the hills, polls to the regional autonomous body is welcome for democracy in Darjeeling.
“The multiple contestants point out that politics of fear does not exist at the moment and there is level playing field for all political parties. The people of the hills want to be represented by their people of their choice and not by bureaucrats,” said Sandip Jain, Editor of Himalayan Times. Mr. Jain, however, added that GTA cannot satisfy the development needs of hill people or the identity issue, but GTA remains the only legal local governing body in the hills and people should participate in the polls.