Poll fever has gripped the hills with major political parties gearing up to contest the panchayat elections to be held in Darjeeling after 22 years.
The Bharatiya Gorkha Prajantrantik Morcha (BGPM), currently the most influential political party in Darjeeling by virtue of being in power at the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), has been the first to be off the starting block.
The party started holding workers’ meet since Saturday, which is being attended by party president Anit Thapa and other senior leaders.
“Yes, you can say that we have started our preparations for rural polls. We need to be prepared to face this election,” said Thapa.
The state government has not yet announced the dates of the rural polls but sources maintain that they are likely to be held in a couple of months.
Rural polls were last held in Darjeeling in 2000 as Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the then dominant political force, was not comfortable with the two-tier panchayat system. It felt the rural polls would overlap with the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).
Unlike the rest of Bengal, in the hills there are provisions to hold only elections to two tiers, the gram panchayat and panchayat samiti.
The state government recently undertook an exercise to freshly demarcate rural constituencies as part of its preparation to hold rural polls.
A new political alignment is also shaping up in the hills before these rural polls.
On Monday, leaders of Hamro Party and Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha held their first meeting to discuss the panchayat elections.
“We have just started discussions and we are hopeful that subsequent meetings will be fruitful,” said a Morcha source.
In the 2021 Bengal Assembly elections, Gurung’s party was in alliance with the Trinamul. The parties also did not contest each other in the 2021 Darjeeling municipality election, which was won by the Hamro Party.
The BGPM, which is close to Trinamul, also decided to go solo in these two elections.
However, in the 2022 GTA elections, Trinamul went in for an “unannounced alliance” with Anit Thapa’s BGPM.
Gurung’s party fielded Independents. The Morcha stated it would not contest the GTA polls as it was against the hill body.
“It now seems a new alliance between Hamro Party and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha is likely to be firmed up for the rural polls,” said an observer.
Two key issues are currently taking centrestage in public discussions around the polls.
“One issue is the state’s decision to grant land documents to tea garden workers. The other is the poor quality of work in the rural water project,” said an observer.
The state’s decision to grant land documents to tea garden workers is expected to reap benefits for the BGPM-TMC combine.
“However, the Opposition parties started a sustained campaign that land documents for the tea workers could have been better,” said an observer. “It needs to be seen how the public reacts when the documents are distributed on a wide scale.”
For now, land documents have only been distributed to workers of two closed tea gardens in Darjeeling.
Many observers believe that the “poor quality” of work in rural water schemes is emerging as a major issue before the elections.
“Even though the BGPM has an edge by virtue of being in power at the GTA, the water controversy could be used as a major plank against the party in the elections,” said an observer of hill politics.