Gorkhaland statehood past stalks Ahluwalia in Durgapur
The Darjeeling Lok Sabha election was over on April 18 but the Queen of the Hills has left its cool climes to descend on the plains of Burdwan-Durgapur, where the maximum temperature is hovering around 44 degrees Celsius.
Darjeeling has become a poll issue in the Burdwan-Durgapur seat, which votes on Monday, because BJP candidate S.S. Ahluwalia has migrated from the hills to the plains this time. For the past five years, Ahluwalia had represented Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha.
That past, marked by the demand from his ally in the hills for a Gorkhaland state, is haunting Ahluwalia although he can claim to be a son of the Bengal plains because he was born near Asansol.
“Not a single vote for the man who conspired to divide Bengal,” chief minister Mamata Banerjee told a campaign rally in Durgapur on April 25.
Across the constituency — from cosmopolitan Durgapur to rural Raina — the Trinamul Congress is using this narrative to attack Ahluwalia.
Trinamul has pressed Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa to buttress its allegation that Ahluwalia was helping the other (Bimal Gurung) faction of the Morcha to divide Bengal. Banners and posters attacking the former Darjeeling MP for his apparent role in “dividing Bengal” have come up across the constituency.
Ahluwalia is up against Trinamul’s Mamtaz Sanghamita, the sitting MP, and the CPM’s Abhas Roy Choudhury.
“Mamata Banerjee can go to any extreme for political gain. If she can accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi, what more can you expect?” asked Ahluwalia, sitting in the newly built BJP office in Burdwan town.
Mamata and Ahluwalia had both been in the Congress when they shot to national limelight during Rajiv Gandhi’s helmsmanship of the party. She was the rookie who had felled a giant in Jadavpur in the 1984 general election, and he a member of the so-called Congress “shouting brigade” at the peak of the Bofors controversy.
Last week, Ahluwalia said the allegation that he had tried to divide Bengal had no basis.
“During the 104-day strike in Darjeeling in 2017, when the Morcha renewed its demand for Gorkhaland, the hill party had accused me of not visiting the hills. Trinamul, on the other hand, had accused me of helping the Morcha,” he said, pleading innocence.
The Morcha’s Gurung faction is still an ally of the BJP in the hills.
Asked whether he had “run away” from Darjeeling, Ahluwalia replied in fluent Bengali: “I was sent to Darjeeling in 2014 with a purpose: it was to defeat Trinamul’s Bhaichung Bhutia. You can say that I recused myself from Darjeeling this time. I’m happy to be here as I belong to this place.”
The 68-year-old, who has often faced flak for not being a bhoomi putra (son of the soil) in the hills, said he was relieved that the BJP had nominated him from Burdwan-Durgapur.
“I was born and brought up in Burdwan district. My birthplace is JK Nagar, a place between Raniganj and Asansol. I studied in Burdwan University and found my wife (Monica Banerjee) here,” Ahluwalia said.
His three sons — Meher, Raunak and Ramanjit — are part of his team.
Ahluwalia says that his ability to speak Bengali is helping him connect with the local people, who he believes want a change. The turban too is “helping me as people can easily recognise me”.
Ahluwalia has a thing for languages — he had sent his resignation from the Congress to Sonia Gandhi in Italian.
A BJP lobby, though, is disgruntled with Ahluwalia’s nomination. Among party nominees in Bengal, his name was the last to be announced. But the veteran of many a battle said he was not worried about the April 29 test.
“The people will decide; they are the judges. There is no point claiming anything in advance,” he said, looking at the tough contest ahead.