Divide And Try To Rule: Why Mamata Banerjee's Darjeeling Gameplan May Backfire

Divide And Try To Rule: Why Mamata Banerjee's Darjeeling Gameplan May BackfireA girl holds a placard during the ongoing Gorkhaland protests (Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Mamata Banerjee’s tactic of using the GJM as a proxy to fight the BJP in the Hills is, on the face of it, a smart move.

    But on a deeper analysis, is it, really?

Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee has announced that she is leaving the three seats in the Darjeeling Hills — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) to contest in the forthcoming Assembly elections.

That was expected because had the Trinamool fielded candidates under its own party symbol, they would have perhaps forfeited even their deposits.

Mamata Banerjee’s tactic of using the GJM as a proxy to fight the BJP in the Hills is, on the face of it, a smart move.

But the smart becomes sinister because she has left the rival factions of the GJM to fight each other in the Hills. And that fight could become very ugly and gory.

The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha was formed by Bimal Gurung in late 2007 and for the next 10 years, Gurung has been the undisputed supremo of Darjeeling Hills.

However, Gurung had to flee the Hills during the protracted Gorkhaland agitation from June to September 2017 after the state government slapped serious cases against him.

With Gurung becoming a fugitive, Mamata Banerjee engineered a split in the Morcha and propped up Binay Tamang, a close aide of Gurung, and another GJM leader Anit Thapa. The duo came to be known as the breakaway faction of the GJM, or ‘GJM 2’, in popular parlance.

Thapa was made the chairman of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) and tasked with winning the Gorkhas over.

The brutal crackdown on the Gorkhaland agitation in 2017 with the state government shamelessly using the administrative machinery and police to intimidate the Gorkhas by filing false cases against them, seizing their properties and brutalising them has completely alienated most of the Gorkhas in the Darjeeling Hills and also the Dooars.

But Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to woo the Gorkhas through the GTA — pouring in a lot of funds through the body, recruitments and awarding of contracts — has not really worked and she remains a highly reviled figure among the Gorkhas.

The GJM had been an ally of the BJP and had helped BJP win the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in 2009, 2014 and 2019. The BJP’s Jaswant Singh, S.S. Ahluwalia and Raju Bista won the seat with GJM’s support in the last three elections.

Gurung had reportedly taken the help of the BJP to evade the Bengal police and remain out of its reach. As a fugitive, he issued numerous statements against Mamata Banerjee and her party.

But tired of being on the run and running the risk of losing support in the hills because of his long absence, Gurung ultimately struck a deal with his bete noire Mamata Banerjee and surfaced in October last year.

Gurung blamed the BJP for not fulfilling its promise of finding a political solution to the Gorkhaland issue and accused the saffron party of betraying the Gorkhas.

Gurung also pledged loyalty to Mamata Banerjee and vowed to help her return to power for the third time in Bengal.

Gurung’s volte-face was understandable, but he lost a lot of support among the Gorkhas for abjectly surrendering to a person they reviled so much. It hurt Gorkha pride.

The Trinamool reportedly started providing a lot of funds to Gurung to finance his political comeback in the hills. The state government also withdrew 70 cases that were filed against him.

Gurung’s faction of the GJM, known as ‘GJM 1’, has been organising a number of meetings and small rallies in the hills since late last year and many of them have been drawing modest crowds.

“Don’t be misled by the size of the crowds at rallies addressed by Gurung or Tamang or Thapa. People of the hills are intelligent. They’ll go to everyone’s rally, hear everyone, and then vote for whoever they think is the best,” said a senior leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), which is an ally of the BJP.

“But Gurung has lost the goodwill and support of most people after falling at Mamata Banerjee’s feet. People of the hills will find it difficult to forgive him for what they feel is betrayal of the Gorkhaland cause because Mamata Banerjee is seen as the biggest adversary of the cause,” explained the GNLF leader.

Mamata Banerjee’s recent patronage of Bimal Gurung has also displeased GJM 2 leaders Binal Tamang and Anit Thapa.

And what came as a big blow to them was Mamata Banerjee’s decision to allow the two GJM factions to fight amongst themselves.

Banerjee told leaders of both the factions to try to field common candidates in the three seats and if they fail to do so, they are free to field their own candidates. The support of the winning candidates from the three seats will then be accepted by the Trinamool, said Banerjee.

“That, in effect, means that she has allowed the two GJM factions to fight a fratricidal battle and weaken themselves in the process. This battle, as per Mamata Banerjee’s sinister calculation, will then leave political space for the Trinamool to step in,” said a former leader of the GJM who was once close to Gurung and left the party before it split.

This diabolic game plan has left the people of the Hills feeling betrayed once again. “Mamata Banerjee knows that if both the factions contest against each other in the elections, the poll battle could turn ugly and bloody. She could have easily brokered a seat-sharing agreement between the two factions given the overwhelming influence she exercises over both,” said the former GJM leader.

“Her malevolent political intentions stopped her from doing the right thing. She thinks that two GJM candidates being in the fray from each seat would split the pro-BJP votes. But that calculation is based on some faulty assumptions,” said the GNLF leader.

Meanwhile, an intense lobbying and jostling for tickets from both the factions have broken out among aspirants.

The Trinamool is also trying to push in its own candidates to contest on GJM 1 or GJM 2 tickets. Two Trinamool leaders — L.B. Rai from Kurseong and N.B. Khawas from Darjeeling — are lobbying for GJM 2 tickets.

Vikram Rai, son of former Darjeeling MLA Amar Rai — he contested and won the Darjeeling Assembly seat on a GJM ticket in 2016, but resigned and was fielded as the Trinamool candidate from the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in 2019 — is also in the fray from the Darjeeling Assembly constituency.

‘GJM 2’ sources said that Vikram Rai is the Trinamool’s first choice as a proxy candidate (to contest on a GJM 2 ticket) from Darjeeling and N.B. Khawas is the second choice.

The GJM 1 is most likely to field Bimal Gurung’s son Avinash as its candidate from Darjeeling. This faction’s likely candidate from Kalimpong is R.B. Bhujel, while it is likely to field Binu Sundas from Kurseong.

Mamata Banerjee is also reportedly pressuring Binay Tamang to give his faction’s ticket to L.B.Rai, the president of the Trinamool unit in Darjeeling Hills. But Anit Thapa is a strong contender from Kurseong and Tamang will find it difficult to deny the ticket to his closest aide.

In that case, the Trinamool leadership may lean on Bimal Gurung to field Rai from Kurseong. But Gurung will also find it difficult to deny a ticket to his long time loyalist Binu Sundas.

GJM 2 is likely to field Ruden Sada Lepcha from Kalimpong while GJM 1 is likely to field R.B. Bhujel from that constituency.

But most of these candidates have covert and even overt links with the Trinamool. That is why the Trinamool is confident that whoever among them wins will ultimately support the Trinamool.

But before that happens, the Darjeeling Hills may witness a lot of violence. And the entire blame for that will rest on Mamata Banerjee for encouraging factionalism in the GJM in order to weaken the Morcha and the Gorkhaland movement.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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