March 5: Mamata Banerjee’s decision to field Bhaichung Bhutia from the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat was “guided” by the soccer star’s popularity and acceptability in the hills and by the fact that the hill unit of Trinamul was “yet to find its feet”, sources in the party said this evening.
Party sources said that despite requests of the hill Trinamul to give the ticket to a candidate from the Darjeeling hills, Mamata chose Bhaichung, from nearby Sikkim.
“We have set up a hill unit of our party but it is very new,” a Trinamul leader said. “So our leader thought that no candidate from the Darjeeling hills would have the stature to take on the might of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.”
The Trinamul leader in Calcutta said that in contrast, Bhaichung is popular, has glamour and has conducted several soccer coaching camps in Darjeeling, endearing himself to the youth there.
“Didi believes that where Trinamul is relatively weak and the opposition formidable, it is important to introduce an apolitical glamour factor,” another Trinamul leader said. “It is for this reason that she put up film actress Debasree Roy from Raidighi against the CPM’s Kanti Ganguly in the 2011 Assembly elections and another film actress Satabdi Roy from the Birbhum Lok Sabha seat against CPM’s Brojo Mukherjee, a strong candidate, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Both the actresses won.”
He said that according to Mamata’s calculations, if she put up a Darjeeling hill Trinamul candidate, that person was bound to lose. “So she is gambling again, like she did with Debasree and Satabdi,” the Trinamul leader said. “She is banking on Bhaichung’s popularity and glamour to pull him through.”
In addition, the leader said that Mamata realised that Bhaichung’s apolitical image would also help him in his battle against the Morcha. “His political record is clean and there is a possibility that many people in Darjeeling would not see him as a politician and would vote for him irrespective of the fact that he is representing Trinamul,” a minister said.
“By fielding a popular non-political candidate, Mamatadi has put the pressure on the Morcha,” a Trinamul leader said. “Even if the Morcha does not support him, we are confident the young generation will vote for him. This is why he was given the ticket,” the minister added.
However, the party’s decision to field Bhaichung has disappointed hill party leaders who wanted a local name. They fear that Bhaichung may be seen as an “outsider”.
A Darjeeling Trinamul leader on condition of anonymity said a candidate from among leaders in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong would have been a better choice.
“We met Mukul Roy, the all-India general secretary of our party, yesterday and requested him to field a candidate from among the hill leadership. We had proposed a number of names such as Binny Sharma, N.B. Khawash, Sharda Subba, Manoj Dewan, Gopal Chhetri and others,” said the Trinamul leader.
But he added: “We will wholeheartedly work towards ensuring the victory of our candidate. We had also told Mukul Roy that we would accept any candidate that the party decides to field. We had a meeting in Mirik today to work out the election strategy and we would go all out to ensure Bhaichung’s victory.”
Bhaichung, who was in Delhi today, said: “I am deeply honoured that Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul have faith in me and have given me such a big responsibility to serve the people of the hills. I met Mukul Roy two days back and he informed me unofficially about my nomination.”
Bhaichung added: “I want to interact with the people of the hills. I want to understand their sufferings as I strongly feel that Darjeeling has always suffered in terms of development.”
Despite joining politics, Bhaichung maintained that he wanted keep a low profile. “This is the first leap in politics. I want to keep a very low profile. I will not say when I will return to Sikkim as I am sure there would be people organising a reception at the airport, which I don’t want. I want to reach out to people instead of them coming to me.”
The principal political party in the Darjeeling hills, the Morcha, which is yet to spell out its stand on the lone Darjeeling seat, refused to comment.