By Adil Hossain

Politics in the hills of Bengal often follows the contours of local topography. The ups and downs of never ending Himalayan mountain ranges, the fast stream of hilly rivers and the deep gorges often appear in the local political developments as well.

In 2009 general elections, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brokered a deal with GJM with the promise to take up the cause of separate state of Gorkhaland nationally and fielded now estranged senior leader Jaswant Singh from the Darjeeling seat. GJM had unchallenged mass base in the hills then which led to the landslide victory of the BJP candidate Mr Singh. This time, BJP is making the same old calculation; by repeating the promise of separate state it hopes to piggyback on Gurung’s party to ensure the victory of its parachuted candidate S.S. Ahluwalia. The only problem is that Darjeeling of 2014 has moved on from 2009; local politics decides the fate here, not the national ‘Modi wave’.

The experience of BJP’s Jaswant Singh as their MP has not been good at all with the local residents. “Jaswant Singh’s performance in Darjeeling has been very poor and all the people from Darjeeling are aware of it. This might cost BJP very heavy this election. People are angrier with the local party GJM for asking them to vote for Jaswant Singh who did not fulfil the demands of the people of the hills,” says Sangmo Thendup, a resident of Darjeeling.

Sangmo is supporting Professor Mahendra Lama, a senior academic and former Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim Central University who is contesting the Darjeeling seat as an independent candidate advocating a strong stand on the Gorkhaland issue. With the tag of ‘Bhumi-putra’, he seems to have spread his appeal among the urban voters of Darjeeling and made the contest four cornered already. Buddhist ethnic groups like Lama and Tamang are said to be strongly behind him in this election.

“Mahendra Lama may eat up little of the urban votes but our rural base is intact. One needs strong organisation to win elections like Loksabha and he is far from building a solid network where he can field poll agents in every booth. His presence won’t make a difference,” asserts Madan Chhetri, who is from Melli in Darjeeling and an ardent GJM supporter.  However it’s not just Professor Lama who is attacking the vote share of GJM in the hills – there are lots of other important players in the region now, thanks to the patronage of Mamata Banerjee. Therefore GJM and BJP leadership have lots to worry about.

Today one can find Trinomool Congress (TMC) flags almost everywhere in the hills next to the GJM flags tied atop. Mamata has fielded former Indian football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia, who apparently draws a strong support in the Kalimpong region, for the same seat. Since assuming power as CM, she has put her focus on Darjeeling and now enjoys considerable support among many local communities. Many attribute this to her astute strategy of encouraging proliferation of identity politics in Darjeeling.

In December 2013, West Bengal government approved the formation of Lepcha Development Board, an entity separate from the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) which was formed in 2011, headed by the GJM leadership, after a series of violent protests and shut down in Darjeeling. Nowadays, voices can be heard from Limboo, Tamang, Bhutia and Sherpa communities to urge the Mamata government to take similar steps to recognise them. She has promised to look into these matters and this has done the trick for now. Lepchas and many of these communities are now vocally supporting the TMC candidate in the elections.

Then to further the woes of GJM and BJP, Subhash Ghisingh, the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo and the hero of the Gorkhaland movement of the late 80s has started playing active role in hill politics these days. Sensing serious threat to their party and its politics, recently GJM appealed for support both from Ghisingh and Professor Lama in the Loksabha elections to “stop division of votes in the hills” but failed to elicit any response from them. At the time of writing this report, Ghisingh and Adibasi Vikas Parishad, an organisation with strong support base among the tribals of Dooars region, have declared their support to Mamata Banerjee and her party candidate.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, which won the Darjeeling seat three times consecutively in 1996, 1998 and last in 1999, has fielded Saman Pathak this time, son of Ananda Pathak, former MP who was quite popular locally. Saman Pathak himself is known for his clean image and can lead to the further division of votes in the hills as he is from there.

Darjeeling Loksabha seat is not just about the hills and more than forty percent of votes come from the plain areas too, which include Siliguri, the second largest city of West Bengal. Here the contest would be between TMC, CPM and Congress with TMC leading the race. TMC is already dominating in places like Chopra, Naxalbari and Phansidewa since the last Panchayat elections.

Though there are many sympathisers to the Modi wave in the plains, BJP’s association with GJM and advocacy on the Gorkhaland issue makes it hard for them to support Ahluwalia. “Many of my friends are quite excited about Modi but Bengalis in Siliguri are quite worried about the fact that voting for BJP means supporting division of Bengal,” points out Anindya Paul who is a primary schoolteacher here.

All in all, it’s advantage Mamata and Bhaichung Bhutiya in Darjeeling this time.