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Morcha plays ball with BJP

- Blow to Bhaichung, bonus in two seats for Modi’s party

March 10: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) today said it would support BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha seats of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar.

The decision is expected to make the race tougher for Trinamul candidate and former footballer Bhaichung Bhutia in Darjeeling. It could also keep a chunk of traditional anti-Left votes away from Trinamul in the other two seats that were won by the RSP and the CPM in 2009 but where the ruling party has made some inroads since then.

Morcha sources claimed an assurance from the BJP that the demand for statehood would find a mention in its election manifesto. Discussions were held between the BJP and a Morcha team led by Bimal Gurung in Delhi.

The BJP is unlikely to use the word “Gorkhaland” in the manifesto but could consider referring to the statehood struggle as “the long-pending demands of the Gorkhas” that would be looked at “sympathetically”.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha election manifesto, the BJP had used similar words. The Morcha had supported the BJP’s Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling and he won. But the BJP did not come to power.

Binay Tamang, the assistant secretary of the Morcha, said from Delhi: “Our delegation led by party president Bimal Gurung held a meeting with BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and S.S. Ahluwalia. We have decided to support the BJP, not just in Darjeeling but also in the Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar Lok Sabha constituencies.”

The Morcha was angry that Trinamul had fielded Bhaichung Bhutia from the Darjeeling seat. Morcha sources said Gurung had no option other than to support the BJP in order to reap the “maximum political advantage” after Trinamul named Bhaichung, who is from Sikkim, as the Darjeeling candidate.

Sources in the hills said Trinamul should not have “realistically” expected the Morcha to support its candidate. “If we had supported him, we would have betrayed the people of Darjeeling as well as our longstanding demand for a separate state,” a Morcha supporter said.

Bhaichung had openly sought the Morcha’s support and also called up Gurung in Delhi. Although some hill Trinamul leaders did not want to ally with the Morcha, a large section of Trinamul, especially in the plains, was hoping that the Morcha would support Bhaichung.

Trinamul leaders today said they were “confident that he (Bhaichung) will win the seat even without the Morcha’s support”.

The BJP is known to be in favour of creating smaller states and has reportedly assured the Morcha team that it would “sympathetically” consider its statehood demand. “The BJP is our only hope,” a Morcha leader said. “There is a strong chance of the NDA coming to power after these elections. The party has already assured us that it will sympathetically consider our statehood demand. So we should strike while the iron is hot or we may well lose out on an ideal opportunity.”

The Morcha sources, however, conceded that even if the NDA did come to power, it would not be easy granting Darjeeling statehood as the district borders Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and it is, therefore, an “extremely sensitive” area. National security is at the core of the BJP plank.

“But the fact that Bimal Gurung would bring back some kind of assurance on statehood from a party which stands a good chance of coming to power would itself ensure that the Morcha gets the backing of the majority of the hill population,” a Morcha leader said.

Sources said Mamata Banerjee’s “unilateral” decision to field Bhaichung from Darjeeling also made the task of rushing to the BJP easier for Gurung.

“There was some pressure on Bimal Gurung to maintain good relations with the Mamata Banerjee government for development in the Darjeeling hills,” a Morcha leader said. “But Mamata’s unilateral decision provided our leadership the excuse to say that the party had been betrayed and so paved the way for an alliance with the BJP.”

The candidates for the Darjeeling, Alipurduar and Jalpaguri seats will be declared jointly by the BJP and the Morcha leadership after Thursday, Morcha sources said.

State BJP president Rahul Sinha said in Calcutta today: “Morcha president Bimal Gurung telephoned me yesterday from Delhi after assuring our central leaders of backing party nominee for the Darjeeling seat. We welcome the Morcha’s decision because it would help our party nominee win in the hills,” Sinha said.

Asked to react to the Morcha’s decision, Trinamul state president and MP Subrata Bakshi said: “Good, because it is now a challenge for us. We have no problem because we have a solid organisational base in the hills now. We are confident of getting our candidate elected in Darjeeling, come what may.”

Trinamul minister Gautam Deb, who is the district party president of Darjeeling, said the situation had changed in the hills “and the Morcha no longer holds the majority of the votes. Our party has fielded Bhaichung Bhutia and we are confident that he will win the seat even without the Morcha’s support.”

The Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh, an apolitical body in the hills which, too, supports the demand the Gorkhaland, and the the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League have decided to support academician Mahendra P. Lama, who will contest as an Independent.

A Morcha leader said support in Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar had been added to make the package more attractive to national parties.

However, even the Morcha concedes that the support to the BJP in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri is unlikely to improve the fortunes of the BJP in these two constituencies.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, even though the Morcha had not officially announced that the party would support the BJP in Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar, the Gorkha population there had tilted towards the national party because of the Morcha’s support to Jaswant Singh in Darjeeling and voted for it almost en bloc.

This is why the BJP secured 21.4 per cent of the votes in Alipurduar and 9.5 per cent of the votes in Jalpaiguri.

“This year, too, the pattern is likely to be the same and the BJP is expected to fetch the same number of votes unless the Narendra Modi factor works in its favour,” a Morcha leader said.

On the other hand, the CPM and the RSP — which won the Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar seats, respectively, in 2009 — had banked on the clout of the Citu which then used to control most of the tea garden labourers, dominated by tribals and Gorkhas.

While the tribal votes went largely to the Left, the Gorkhas voted for the BJP. The tea gardens constitute about 50 per cent of these two constituencies.

The others had largely voted for the Left. As a result, the RSP got 42 per cent of the votes in Alipurduar while the CPM got 39 per cent of the votes in Jalpaiguri.

However, in the intervening five years, Trinamul’s INTTUC has made some inroads into the tea gardens, largely at the cost of the Left.

Had the Morcha not supported the BJP, perhaps more votes from the traditional anti-Left segment would have gone to Trinamul. “This will be an interesting election in these two constituencies,” a Trinamul leader said.