The three Assembly seats in the sylvan Darjeeling Hills — Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong — could have been easy wins for the BJP.
The barely concealed and widespread anger against, and even deep hostility towards Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee for the horrific atrocities committed on thousands of people during the Gorkhaland agitation of 2017 is there for all to see.
But people are unhappy with the BJP as well for its three unfulfilled promises: Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the eleven Gorkha sub-tribes who are not included in the ST list, establishment of a Central University in the Hills and a political solution to Gorkhaland (statehood) issue.
To make matters worse, the BJP’s choice of candidates for the three seats has left many people disappointed.
But what is working in the BJP’s favour are the fresh promises it has made in its manifesto and the positive image of the party’s Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista.
Animosity towards Mamata Banerjee
The deep resentment among the Gorkhas towards Mamata Banerjee is no secret. And that is why she, or her party leaders and functionaries, have not stepped into the Darjeeling Hills for campaigning.
The Trinamool has not fielded any candidate in the three seats for the obvious reason that all of them would have surely lost their deposits. The very mention of Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee is like waving a red rag to the angry Gorkhas.
Banerjee has left the three seats to her warring allies — the two factions of the (GJM) led by (the faction is called GJM I) and (GJM II).
The Trinamool chief had engineered a split in the GJM during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation by winning over senior Morcha leaders Binay Tamang and to her side.
The brutal police crackdown on GJM leaders and activists spearheading the Gorkhaland agitation in 2017 drove Bimal Gurung underground and the political space he vacated was happily filled by Banerjee’s lackeys Tamang and Thapa.
Things changed when Gurung, who had been on the run for three years, agreed to a deal with the Trinamool and surfaced late last year.
In return for immunity from prosecution, Gurung severed the Morcha’s alliance with the BJP and pledged support to Mamata Banerjee. Gurung started criticising the BJP for not fulfilling the promises it had made in the 2016 Assembly elections.
But the Trinamool chief could not broker peace between the warring GJM factions and as a result, both GJM I and GJM II fielded candidates in the three Assembly seats in the Hills.
Banerjee had said very nonchalantly that the winning candidate from any of the two GJM factions will extend support to the Trinamool after the elections.
For the long-suffering people, especially the Gorkhas, of the Darjeeling Hills, this drove home the point that the much-despised Trinamool is fighting the BJP in the Hills through its proxies.
But that does not mean that the people will not vote for the candidates put up by the two rival factions.
“The Gorkhas are loyal by nature and there is one section who still swears by Bimal Gurung. They justify Gurung’s ‘surrender’ to Mamata Banerjee as a desperate act to save himself and resurrect his political career,” said a political observer.
There is another section of Gorkhas and others in the Hills who have benefited from their association with the Tamang-Thapa faction. “These people have got jobs and contracts and have derived financial benefits from Tamang and Thapa, who used to administer the (GTA) till very recently. So they will support the GJM II candidates,” said the observer.
But it is the vast majority of Gorkhas and others in the Hills who do not have any fixed political allegiance who will decide the outcome of the polls in the Hills.
BJP’s unfulfilled promises
The BJP has been defensive about the electoral promises it has not kept, the primary among them being granting ST status to the 11 Gorkha sub-tribes: Gurung, Bhujel, Mangar, Newar, Jogi, Khas, Rai, Sunwar, Thami, Yakka and Dhimal.
The Bengal government has already given its consent to this proposal and the Union Home Ministry says that the Registrar General of India (RGI) is examining the matter.
Home Minister Amit Shah has said in election rallies that the process of granting ST status has got delayed due to the pandemic and will be expedited after the elections.
As for the promise of a political solution to the statehood demand, the BJP has been treading on thin ice since even a hint of support to Gorkhaland will cost the party very dearly in the plains. The Gorkhas believe that this is why the BJP is dragging its feet on this issue.
But Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista has been raising both these issues on the floor of the Parliament and asserts that all these promises will be fulfilled soon.
The BJP has no explanation to offer for not establishing the Central University in the Hills. There is no clarity as yet on this matter.
But the BJP’s 2021 manifesto is a hit
But what has caught the imagination of the Gorkhas in the hills is the BJP’s latest promise of issuing parja pattas (land deeds) to tea garden workers living in the hills and Dooars, forest dwellers and other marginalised and backward communities like the tribals, Rajbongshis, Koch, Meches and Totos.
The BJP, in its manifesto, has also promised to give out parja pattas to all those living in District Improvement Fund (DIF) lands (read ). The award of parja pattas will benefit about ten lakh families (Gorkhas, tribals and other communities) in the Hills as well as the Dooars.
Another poll promise by the BJP that has generated a lot of support for the party, especially from tea garden workers, is enhancement of the daily wage from the present Rs 202 to Rs 350. This meets one of the long-standing demands of the marginalised and poor tea garden workers.
Another positive: Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista’s image
Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista has earned a lot of popularity in the Hills. “He is clean, sincere and upright. He comes across as warm and genuine and very unlike other politicians,” said Rajiv Sharma, a lawyer.
Bista, an unassuming and down-to-earth person who has strong ties with the RSS, hails from Manipur. He was the managing director of a Rs 6,000 crore-turnover company manufacturing solar power devices, LED lights and white goods.
“He is not in politics for self-aggrandisement like other politicians and people know that. He spends a lot of time in his constituency interacting very closely with the masses. And he is an active MP who takes up issues concerning the people of the Hills in Parliament. People now trust him and respect him. He is the driving force behind the BJP in the Hills,” said Sharma.
The BJP had left this seat to its ally, the (GNLF). The GNLF was expected to nominate its leader Ajay Edwards, who is very popular, for the seat.
However, GNLF president Mann Ghising (son of GNLF founder Subhas Ghising) named BJP Darjeeling MLA Neeraj Zimba (he won the seat in a bypoll in 2019) as the alliance (BJP-GNLF) candidate for the seat.
Zimba, a lawyer by profession, had a long association with the GNLF and was its spokesperson. But his role in the 2017 statehood agitation is suspect.
He won in 2019 on a BJP ticket with support from the GJM (Bimal Gurung). But he is accused of preferring to spend more time in the plains (Siliguri) than the Hills.
The GJM I candidate in this seat, Pemba Tshering, is widely respected. He is also a lawyer and was jailed during the 2017 agitation. But after his release and despite many overtures from the Tamang-Thapa faction, he remained loyal to Bimal Gurung.
Tshering also has administrative experience, having run the Darjeeling Municipality as its chairman quite successfully, and is seen as honest and upright.
The GJM II candidate, Keshav Raj Sharma, was implicated in the murder of Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) leader . Though a good orator, he suffers from a negative image among the people.
The BJP candidate, Suva Pradhan, is a widely respected academic. A former headmaster of the reputable Scottish Universities Mission Institution (SUMI) of Kalimpong, he also served as the chairman of Kalimpong municipality.
Pradhan was a close associate of Bimal Gurung till the latter decided to switch allegiance to Mamata Banerjee. It was then that the BJP reached out to him and convinced him to join the party.
Pradhan’s primary rival is GJM II candidate Ruden Lepcha, a businessman. Though he is popular in some circles as a movie producer, he is buffeted by many allegations of corruption and malpractices.
The GJM I candidate, Ram Bahadur Bhujel, was a GTA member and is seen to have acquiesced to pressure from the state government during the 2017 Gorkhaland agitation.
He is also suspected to have brokered a deal between Mamata Banerjee and Bimal Gurung last year that led to Gurung coming overground and declaring support for Banerjee. As such, Bhujel does not enjoy a very good image among the people.
The BJP’s choice of candidate for this seat is being widely questioned. Bishnu Prasad Sharma, the candidate, joined the saffron party recently. But it is his background that may hobble his electoral prospects.
Sharma is, in popular perception, a turncoat. He was close to former Sikkim Chief MInister Nar Bahadur Bhandari, and when Pawan Chamling was gaining ground, switched over promptly to Chamling’s Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF).
Sharma once again dumped Chamling and joined Prem Singh Tamang (popularly known as P.S.Golay) when the latter started emerging as a powerful force in Sikkim. After Golay became Sikkim Chief Minister in 2019, Sharma became a member of his inner circle.
But he was soon sidelined by Golay and finding himself in political wilderness, he approached Bimal Gurung while the latter was underground (in hiding). He became the spokesperson of the GJM faction headed by Gurung.
But some unilateral actions by Sharma infuriated Gurung, leading to Sharma being sidelined once again. When Gurung joined hands with Mamata Banerjee, the BJP, which had never made any effort to build an organisation in the Hills, was left without people of consequence.
It was then that a desperate BJP, which was severely handicapped by lack of an organisational base in the Hills, approached Sharma to contest on the party ticket from Kurseong.
The GJM I candidate — Norbu Lama — is a Bimal Gurung loyalist and is widely respected for not having dumped Gurung when the latter was in hiding. Lama is reputed to have done good work as a GTA member and enjoys a good image.
But the GJM II candidate, Tsering Lama Dahal, is not very popular and has allegations of corruption and malpractices against her.
Many in the Hills say that the BJP should have declined GNLF chief Mann Ghising’s offer of fielding Neeraj Zimba from Darjeeling and should have prevailed on Ghising to nominate his own party colleague Ajay Edwards as the alliance candidate.
The Darjeeling seat would have been a sureshot win for Edwards, a popular businessman known for his philanthropy.
The BJP’s choice of candidate for Kurseong also left a lot to be desired, feel many. Instead of Sharma, the BJP would have done well to nominate even a novice with a good image.
The only thing that works for Sharma is the solid backing of Raju Bista who has been campaigning very aggressively and tirelessly for him.
Finally, its the degree of angst that will carry the day
The BJP is hoping that Bista’s image, the attractive and path-breaking promises it has made in its manifesto and the deep anger and animosity towards Mamata Banerjee will see it through in the three constituencies.
Party leaders contend that the huge turnouts at rallies and roadshows of senior BJP leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, is evidence that the people of the Hills harbour no anger towards the BJP.
While it remains to be seen if the huge turnouts translate into votes for the saffron party, the BJP’s rivals — GJM I and II — are harping on the BJP’s unfulfilled promises.
The two GJM rivals have been telling people that the BJP has taken the Gorkhas for a ride and is not serious about fulfilling the aspirations of the Gorkhas.
By harping on the BJP’s unfulfilled promises, the two GJM factions want to bring to the fore the latent dejection of the people with the BJP.
And that, they hope, will trump people’s deep anger with Mamata Banerjee. The BJP has been painting the GJM factions as Mamata Banerjee’s stooges with the aim of directing people’s anger with Mamata Banerjee towards the two GJM factions.
In the final analysis, it is the degree of anger--against the BJP and against Mamata Banerjee--that will decide the outcome of the polls in these three seats.
Also read: Bengal: Why Uttarakhand's Tourism Minister, Satpal Maharaj, Matters in Darjeeling
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