Harsh Vardhan Shringla, the chief coordinator of India’s G20 presidency, reached his “home in Darjeeling and Siliguri” on Wednesday and announced a slew of initiatives for the region, prompting some observers to wonder whether his moves marked a "soft landing" in Bengal's hill politics.
Shringla, 61, who had earlier been foreign secretary and India's ambassador to the US, among other prestigious assignments, traces his roots to Darjeeling.
On Wednesday, he made three major announcements that revolved around ensuring economic partnerships and philanthropic support for the region, and job opportunities for the youths in the hills.
“On my request, board members of the Indo-US strategic forum, who are top CEOs of the US, will be coming to Darjeeling to explore opportunities for economic growth and collaboration in the region,” said Shringla.
He also disclosed that he had sent a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a team from the foundation would be visiting Darjeeling in November for possible philanthropic support.
“I have talked about the potential of our youths with 50 top companies of our country and they will be coming here for a training cum employment camp (in November),” said Shringla.
The initiatives will be undertaken through the Darjeeling Welfare Society (DWS) which was established in May 2023 by Shringla.
In the past couple of years, Shringla has tried to reach out to various sections of the communities in the region and distributed laptops, computers, sports and recreational equipment to various societies.
Several people in Darjeeling said that he earned goodwill in the area following the pivotal role he played in bringing Darjeeling residents from the Gulf countries when they were stranded during the Covid-19 pandemic.
While people have welcomed Shringla's initiatives for the hills over the last couple of years, there has also been speculation on whether he has been doing all this to launch himself as a politician.
Harka Bahadur Chhetri, former Kalimpong MLA and a political commentator from the hills, echoed the murmurs, and said these announcements on Wednesday could be construed as Shingla's “soft landing in politics.”
“These announcements are a soft landing of Harsh Vardhan jiu in politics. We have been hearing about this for the past eight to nine months and today's (Wednesday's) announcements can be treated as a confirmation,” said Chhetri.
The former Kalimpong MLA on Wednesday said that he would not be surprised if Shringla gets a ticket as a BJP nominee from Darjeeling.
“The BJP has the tendency to bring new high-profile faces, who may not necessarily be residing permanently in Darjeeling,” said Chhetri.
In the past, the BJP had fielded heavyweights like former foreign minister Jaswant Singh and former Union minister of state S.S. Ahluwalia from Darjeeling. In 2019, the party fielded Raju Bista, a Gorkha from Manipur from Darjeeling. All of them won.
A source in Delhi said that the stock of Shringla, who is well respected in the region, rose in the saffron camp after the G20 summit, which was billed as a major achievement for the country.
Shringla is also believed to have the ears of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which helped him convince the government to host a G20 tourism meeting in Darjeeling.
“The meeting was held in Darjeeling despite the place facing major infrastructure issues to host such an event,” said a source.
In his four-decade-long diplomatic career, Shringla served as India’s ambassador to the US and Thailand and was also the high commissioner of India to Bangladesh, among other postings.
“He has had a distinguished career. Ties between India and Bangladesh were among the best when he was serving in Bangladesh.... Given his stature in the hills, he can be a decent choice as a BJP candidate from Darjeeling," said a commentator, who has known the former diplomat for years.
The commentator said that while Shringla — who initially studied at Mayo College, Ajmer, and then went ahead to do his graduation from St Stephen's College, Delhi — has an impressive CV to emerge as a natural BJP nominee from Darjeeling, making a switch to the world of politics may not be easy.
First, Shringla will have to deal with the party's Bengal unit, wherein his diplomatic skills will be put to a real test amid the fissures in the party's organisation.
Second, replacing Raju Bista, a young sitting MP, would be easier said than done as the incumbent has established himself as the most visible BJP MP in Darjeeling during his term.
“Bista has also managed to strengthen the party’s support base in his constituency. It also needs to be seen how the party cadres react (to a change),” said an observer in the hills.
Most importantly, Shringla, if he does take the plunge into politics, will have to face some uncomfortable questions about the BJP's failure in delivering on some of its election promises in the hills.
“The party had promised a permanent political solution to the region and also tribal status to 11 Gorkha communities. These demands have not yet been met and questions will definitely be raised on these issues,” said an observer.
Shringla, speaking to The Telegraph, said he was working in the interest of the people of his place.
“I am only concerned and working in the interest of the people; giving to the people of my place,” said Shringla.
When specifically asked if he could serve Darjeeling better in a bigger role through politics, Shringla said: “I can’t comment on something that is hypothetical right now.”
Amid the speculation about his entry into the world of politics, a source in Darjeeling borrowed the title of the biography on Shringla — Not An Accidental Rise, written by Dipmala Roka, an assistant professor at Sikkim University
The book had been released earlier this year.
"I think Shringla's accidental rise as a politician is just a matter of time," the source quipped.