Development or Gorkhaland: Tough choice for people in Darjeeling hills (Election Special)
Believing in the promise of Gorkhaland, people of the hills in West Bengal voted for a BJP candidate in 2009. This poll season, with the dream of a separate state still not fulfilled, the people are however yet to decide between the development promised by the state's ruling TMC and giving the BJP another chance.
While the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has fielded the star footballer Bhaichung Bhutia, who is promising development and progress, the BJP's Surinder Singh Ahluwalia, supported by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) has revived the slogan for Gorkhaland.
The Darjeeling constituency, one of 42 in West Bengal, comprises the Kalimpong and Kurseong sub-divisions. According to Election Commission data, it has an electorate of 1,215,464.
"This election I do not know whom to choose. If Bhutia wins, at least the state government will release funds for development. But this means Gorkhaland will never become a reality," Lok Bahadur Kharga, the owner of a milk dairy in Kalimpong, told IANS.
The hills will vote April 17.
Kharga, who has been associated with the Gorkhaland agitation since 1986, said that the GJM has only politicised the statehood issue and sold itself to the state government.
"The GJM leaders have taken the people for granted. Sometimes they announce demonstrations against the GTA, while on other occasions they will accept them. The people are not fools," added Kharga.
GTA is a semi-autonomous administrative body for the Darjeeling hills which came into being in 2012 after the GJM reached an agreement with the Mamata Banerjee-led government opposed to the division of West Bengal.
In 2009, the people had elected BJP's Jaswant Singh. Ahluwalia has been fielded in his place this time.
Said Kharga: "Like me there are many who are confused as to whom to vote. We want development, but we also want a separate state."
But there are many others, especially youth, who are disillusioned by the constant shutdowns and unrest in the picturesque hills and are now pinning their hopes on the TMC.
"The Gorkhaland issue is only a populist measure now. My vote is definitely for Bhutia," Sanjog Dutta, a resident of Kurseong, told IANS over the phone.
"I think the aspirations of youth can be best represented by Bhutia. He is from (the neighbouring state of) Sikkim so he at least understands our culture and needs, unlike the BJP candidate who is completely an outsider," said Phulamu Sherpa, a student of Darjeeling Government College and a first time voter.
Interestingly, in the hills, selecting a candidate and a party has become more of a community decision than an individual choice.
While the Limbu community is boycotting the elections, the Lepcha population, which is viewed as a major vote bank in the hills, is so far divided over the candidate.
"Our association - the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association (ILTA) - is supporting Bhutia. What we want is development and protection of our rights," Lensong Lepcha, the ILTA leader, told IANS.
What has also made the contest interesting is the fact that the ousted leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), Subhash Ghising, is likely to extend support to the TMC.
But for many, BJP candidate Ahluwalia is still a better choice as the party might come to power at the centre and grant a Gorkhaland state.
"This time the support to the BJP is not just because of GJM. There is a strong feeling that they might come to power at the centre. If that happens, then our cause of statehood might come true," Dal Bahadur Basnet, a farmer and village head, told IANS.
Santosh Chettri, a teacher at a government secondary school, said: "We have fought for the cause of Gorkhaland for very long. Now is the time. So how can we give up?"
Though the main fight is between the BJP and the TMC, Independent candidate Mahendra P. Lama is also gaining ground.
"Lama is a great educationist and was vice chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). Seeing his background, many could vote for him," Prem Tshering Bhutia, a government school teacher, told IANS.
In fact, seeing his growing popularity, the GJM's Bimal Gurung has already asked him to withdraw his nomination and come on board.
"Lama belongs to Darjeeling itself. GJM should have supported Lama's candidature and regained its credibility," Homnath Pradhan, a businessman, told IANS.
(Shradha Chettri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 30-03-2014)