|(From top) Bhaichung Bhutia, Trinamul’s Darjeeling candidate, at the Chowrasta rally in the hill town on April 13; Mahendra P Lama, the Independent candidate from Darjeeling, at a rally on April 14; SS Ahluwalia, the BJP’s candidate for Darjeeling who is supported by the Morcha, at his final election rally on April 15
It’s the weekly market day. That’s why the day was chosen. But the choice of the place — Sukhia Pokhri, some 12 miles from Darjeeling town — was more significant. This is where it all began.
Weeks before the Lok Sabha elections in 1980, this is where a now-forgotten political group — Pranta Parishad — organised a rally and gave the call for a “chhutei rajya (separate state)” for the Darjeeling hills. Among the leaders who attended that meeting that day were latter-day crusaders for Gorkhaland — Subash Ghisingh, Madan Tamang and Amar Bhutia.
When the elections came, CRPF jawans dominated the scene in Darjeeling for the first time, but most of the booths in Sukhia Pokhri returned empty ballot boxes.
Many of the leaders have since changed camps or left the scene. Tamang was brutally murdered four years ago. Bhutia, though, passed away peacefully recently. Ghisingh launched his own Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and set the hills ablaze for 28 months from 1985 to 1988 before settling for the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.
Then, his kingdom was usurped in 2007 by disciple-turned-rebel Bimal Gurung, who took up the fight for Gorkhaland and forced the former into an exile in the dusty plains of Jalpaiguri and later Bagdogra.
At the meeting in Sukhia Pokhri this afternoon, it is the turn of another man who would like to be the next statehood crusader for Darjeeling. Mahendra P. Lama, though, is unlike any of the previous fighters. His business card makes impressive reading for a politician from the Darjeeling hills.
Professor of South Asian economics at the School of International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he has been the founding vice-chancellor of the Central University of Sikkim and a former member of the National Security Advisory Board.
This one at Sukhia Pokhri is Lama’s 137th public meeting for his first-ever electoral campaign. He had begun way back in September last year, when none of the other parties had announced their candidates. In fact, Lama never had a party worth the name when he plunged into the campaign. His Darjeeling-Dooars United Development Foundation is still not the usual kind of a political party.
But he wants to be the man who would get a separate state (he is not too sure if Gorkhaland is the right name) for Darjeeling and the Dooars. He is yet to have a well-defined map of the state of his dream (it roughly corresponds to Gurung’s map, he tells me.)
But he has rallied around him quite a few of the parties that want a Gorkhaland — the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), into which the Pranta Parishad merged), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), which broke away from the CPM in the early 1990s, and one-time Ghisingh acolyte Dawa Pakhrin’s little-known new outfit.
It may not yet be Lama’s moment. No one in Darjeeling believes he is going to win these elections. But everyone agrees he will be a player. The estimates of his possible vote share vary widely from 20,000 to 50,000. That makes the main contenders for the Darjeeling seat — Gurung-supported BJP candidate S.S. Ahluwalia and Ghisingh-supported Trinamul Congress’s Baichung Bhutia — worry about what Lama’s campaign may or may not do to their own chances of success.
Lama’s presence in the scene is symptomatic of two major changes in the politics of the hills. It is going to be an unusual election in Darjeeling for nearly three decades. This is the first time since the 1984 Lok Sabha elections that Darjeeling may see a “normal” poll.
All elections since 1984 had been dominated by a single party — for 20 years it was the writ of Ghisingh’s GNLF that alone ran in the hills, only to be replaced by the complete sway of Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. There were other parties and candidates in the contests, but the overwhelming majority of people fell in line with the GNLF or the GJM, often out of fear.
That has changed. Lama gives Mamata Banerjee credit for this. Gurung accepts that the change has taken place but takes credit for it. “Our agitation has always been peaceful and spontaneous. We don’t use fear and violence as tools”, he says during a conversation at one of his party camps at Tukvar.
Not everyone agrees. “It’s true that the atmosphere is rather free in towns. But it’s different in the tea gardens and the bustees (villages),” Govind Chettri, a member of the central committee of the CPRM, tells me.
The other big change is, everyone agrees, because of Mamata Banerjee only. She has done something that no other politician from Calcutta had tried in Darjeeling before. She has told Gurung that the “Gorkhas” aren’t the only community in Darjeeling.
The way she has reached out to the Lepchas and the Lamas (Tamangs) has caused a rather unprecedented political situation in the hills.
Many have seen in her moves to promote the other communities a dangerous ploy. “It is worse than the divide-and-rule policy. It’s divide and destory,” Lama complains.
Gurung is even harsher in his criticism of what he thinks is a sinister game. “She is worse than the CPM,” he says, complaining about the arrests of some 2,000 of his party supporters and numerous cases slapped against them.
What Mamata has done is not without a precedent. During the high noon of Ghisingh’s Gorkhaland agitation, the same attempt to prop up the Lepchas against the “Gorkhas” had been made, primarily by intelligence agencies. It simply fell flat that time.
For these elections, though, Mamata’s moves have added a large measure of uncertainty to the poll scene in Darjeeling. The constituency has three segments in the hills and four in the plains. Her party hopes to make more gains in the plains segments with her battle for a “united Bengal”. In the hills, however, disunity is her main weapon — both among the communities and among the pro-Gorkhaland forces.
But Gurung still remains the strongest player in the hills. Ghisingh’s support to her may strengthen Mamata’s hand, but the 78-year-old man has very little of the support he enjoyed while he reigned in the hills for 20 long years. And, in the plains, the CPM is no longer Mamata’s only big enemy.
The Modi effect in these elections and the gains the BJP hopes to make by it may make things less comfortable for Mamata in the plains segments of the Darjeeling constituency.
With the BJP projected to form the next government at the Centre, Gurung holds out the promise of getting the Gorkhaland that he couldn’t get from a UPA government. It’s another matter that Narendra Modi and Ahluwalia have so far evaded mentioning “Gorkhaland”. All that the BJP says is that it will fulfil the “aspirations” of the people of Darjeeling.
One thing, though, is for sure. Gurung isn’t finding the going easy. If he can’t get Darjeeling for the BJP, it may well be the beginning of his end as the current icon of the Gorkhaland agitation. It may also see the beginning of yet another battle for Gorkhaland.