In a country as diverse as India, ethnic politics comes in handy to crafty leaders anxious to win popular support. Nothing stirs the ethnic pot like the demand for a separate state, no matter how illogical it may be. And, no time is better suited for this brand of politics than the electoral season. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why Mr Subash Ghisingh and his party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, have again hinted at the possibility of reviving the demand for a separate “Gorkhaland” state. The coming elections to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, of which Mr Ghisingh has been the chairman since its inception in 1988, and the opposition’s criticism of his failures have clearly set the stage for the revival of the old statehood slogan. Unfortunately, fifteen years after the GNLF’s violent agitation ended in the formation of the DGHC, “Gorkhaland” remains the war cry of all political battles in the Darjeeling hills. Mr Ghisingh’s argument that he had only “dropped” but not “withdrawn” the demand at the time of signing the Darjeeling accord with the Centre and the West Bengal government is obviously specious. But his critics who blame him for “betraying” the Gorkhaland cause and thereby hope to swing public sympathies against him are actually playing into his hands.
For the people of Darjeeling, though, the state of the hills, rather than statehood politics, is the real issue. Mr Ghisingh has actually to answer for many of his failed promises and flawed steps. It is true that the once-famed “queen of the hills” had lost much of its lustre long before the GNLF leader had emerged on to the region’s politics. But the people may justifiably ask him why the DGHC could not improve matters with all the funds at its disposal for one and a half decades. The three subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong wear as derelict a look today as they did when the DGHC came into being. The two basic problems facing the hill people — roads and drinking water — continue to make life immeasurably difficult. Although part of the responsibility lies with the state government, the dwindling forest cover makes the hills dangerously prone to landslips and other environmental disasters. Sparring on ethnic slogans would look like shadow-boxing in the face of such real issues.