Darjeeling poised for interesting poll battle
A proxy war between a chief minister determined to assert her writ and a regional satrap fighting for survival, the presence of high-profile candidates, fast-changing equations, and the issue of a separate state have made the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat election interesting.
Former Indian soccer captain Bhaichung Bhutia of the Trinamool Congress faces a tough challenge from Bharatiya Janata Party's vice president Surinder Singh Ahluwalia and Communist Party of India-Marxist nominee Saman Pathak in a 13-corner contest in this northern West Bengal constituency that votes Thursday.
The Congress candidate is Sujoy Ghatak, but he seems to have been reduced to a sideshow in a dramatic thriller, replete with twists and turns of plot and the manoeuvres of formidable off-stage artists.
For West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee, it is a prestige battle to establish her political sway in the Darjeeling hills - an internationally famous tourism paradise that has seen much blood-letting and disruptions over the demand for a Gorkhaland state since the mid-1980s.
The three assembly segments in the hills - Darjeeling, Kurseyong and Kalimpong - have over six lakh electors out of the 14,22,809 voters in the entire Lok Sabha constituency. Four other assembly segments - Siliguri, Matigara-Naxalbari, Phansidewa and Chopra - in the plains command eight lakh-plus votes.
For Bimal Gurung, chief of the hill's dominant outfit Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, whose party upstaged the Gorkha National Liberation Front chief Subhas Ghising in 2006 to claim the leadership in the Gorkhaland movement, the elections are a "do and die" battle for Gorkhaland.
Pally with Banerjee since the last years of the erstwhile Left Front regime, the GJM signed the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration accord months after the Trinamool came to power, and swept the maiden elections the following year.
However, the script turned topsy-turvy last year when the GJM intensified the Gorkhaland movement after the central government endorsed Telangana.
The Banerjee regime cracked down hard, arresting hundreds of GJM leaders and activists, rounding up the party's principal fund providers, and reopening old cases against its big guns.
Under pressure, the GJM then virtually surrendered to Banerjee by scaling down the movement, only to seize on the Lok Sabha polls to settle scores with the state's ruling party by extending support to the BJP.
Addressing meetings in the three hill segments, Gurung has been trying to whip up Gorkha sentiments, calling the elections "the last fight for Gorkhaland".
Banerjee, leading her party's campaign, has been referring to her frequent tours to Darjeeling as chief minister, and stressing on the need for peace for implementing the government's development plans.
In the plains, where there is a strong sentiment against Gorkhaland, she is accusing the GJM and the BJP of "conspiring" to divide Bengal.
In an attempt to do a balancing act, in the hills Ahluwalia has been referring to the BJP's preference for creating smaller states for better administration and promising that the problems and concerns of the Gorkhas will be "considered sympathetically" if his party comes to power after the polls.
However, he has been playing down the issue in the plains.
In 2009, the GJM backed BJP's Jaswant Singh, who won by a margin of over 2.53 lakh votes over Jibesh Sarkar of the CPI-M, while Congress candidate Dawa Norbula - supported by the Trinamool - secured nearly 1.88 lakh votes. Norbula had emerged victor with GNLF support in 2004.
But this time around, the poll arithmetic looks complicated. Independent candidate Mahendra P. Lama, founding vice-chancellor of Sikkim University, could cut into the GJM's committed votes. Moreover, the GNLF - which still has some following in the hills - has lent support to Bhutia.
The Trinamool is also eyeing the votes of the minority Lepcha and Tamang communities in the hills, after Banerjee announced separate development councils for them.
On the other hand, the GJM has the support of the Kamtapur Peoples Party, which has substantial following in some rural areas of the plains. In addition, Ahluwalia is also hoping to benefit from a "Modi wave".
The CPI-M is banking on a possible division in the hill vote into four or five parts, and the disenchantment of the Nepalis residing in the plains with the Trinamool.
"There is no Gorkha sentiment this time in the hills. Gurung has lost his earlier control here. The votes in the hills will be divided. In the plains, the Congress will get 60,000-70,000 votes. We will finish number one in the plains and if we get even 50,000 votes from the plains we will be through," former minister and CPI-M leader Ashok Bhattacharya told IANS.
(Posted on 16-04-2014)