of labour leader Sagina Mahato is woven. “It’s our final battle. Vote for Jaswant Singh,” a GJM activist campaigns for a candidate who does not belong to his party at this railway township, about 30 km south of Kurseong.
Considering its unique electorate composition and issues, Darjeeling has always thrown up surprises in elections. This time, it promises to have an even more interesting and suspenseful Lok Sabha poll because of various other new factors.
Some of them are: BJP’s decision to fight the polls for the pro-Gorkhaland GJM in proxy, presence of the saffron party’s high-profile candidate Jaswant Singh, the inability of CPM and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to campaign anywhere in the constituency, flight of former Gorkha strongman Subash Ghisingh from Darjeeling and support of Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) to BJP.
What has queered the pitch for Congress which had won the seat in 2004 and CPM is BJP’s decision to fight from Darjeeling, riding piggyback on GJM. The saffron party has a negligible presence in the region.
“BJP is an opportunistic party. The people of the constituency will reject it,” says CPM candidate Jibesh Sarkar. “Our position is strong because we stand for peace and unity,” he adds.
The constituency has seven Assembly segments, of which three are in the Hills and four in the plains. Marxists have a strong base in the plains segments of Siliguri, Phansidewa, Matigara-Naxalbari and Chopra. The hill Assembly seats of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong comprise about 48% of the over 12-lakh strong electorate. Currently, GJM holds total sway over them as well as the foothills that have a sizeable Nepali population.
Keeping this in mind, both GJM and BJP are confident of victory. Both have focused on the Gorkhaland issue. Singh has promised to take the Gorkhas’ “101-year-old demand” to “Delhi and beyond”. Besides, he has also roped in Kamtapur Progressive Party by sympathizing with its demand for a separate state for Rajbanshis, who live in huge numbers in North Bengal.
Despite all this, CPM and Congress regard each other as main rivals. Congress nominee Dawa Narbula, who bagged the seat with GNLF support last time, projects himself as the only “hill candidate”. He calls Singh “an outsider who will be of no help to the hill people”. Apart from the hill votes, he is banking on Congress’s alliance with Trinamool. In 2004, he had defeated his nearest challenger Mani Thapa (CPM) by over a lakh votes.
This time, CPM feels that any division of hill votes between BJP and Congress will go to its advantage. It also expects overwhelming support from voters in the plains who are against the Gorkhaland demand.
Given GJM’s stranglehold over the Hills, Marxist leaders find it difficult to campaign in Nepali areas. “GJM has not allowed us to canvass in the Hills. We have taken it up with the Election Commission,” says urban development minister and CPM leader Asok Bhattacharya. The chief minister, who hasn’t been able to set foot in the Hills since GJM’s rise in October 2007, has described the situation there as “not conducive to the polls”. He has also expressed concern over GJM raising a police wing called Gorkhaland Personnel.
Another factor that may trouble the Left is Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad (ABAVP)’s decision to boycott the elections in support of its various demands, including an autonomous council under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Adivasis dominate almost all 46 tea gardens in the plains of Darjeeling.
Confident of Citu’s influence over these workers, Bhattacharya, however, says, “The boycott will not have any impact in our district.” In contrast, ABAVP has been tough with RSP in the Dooars in neighbouring Jalpaiguri district, which has 153 tea estates.
In the Hills, GJM’s decision to back BJP has landed other pro-Gorkhaland parties in a spot. CPRM, which broke away from CPM in 1996 over the statehood question, has agreed to campaign for Singh. “Our support is for Gorkhaland, our common goal,” explains CPRM central committee member D S Bomzan.
On the other hand, Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL) has not taken kindly to GJM’s decision to field “an outsider”. “We have appealed for conscience voting,” says ABGL chief Madan Tamang.
But the biggest surprise has come from Gorkha National Liberation Front chief Subash Ghisingh, who has been living in Jalpaiguri following his banishment from the Hills by GJM last year. His party has decided to boycott the elections seeking Schedule Tribe status for all Nepali ethnic groups. This, observers claim, may keep anti-GJM (read anti-BJP) voters away from the polls. But an unforgiving GJM says, “Ghisingh has spoilt the chances of his return to the Hills.” Smaller parties, such as CPI (ML)-Liberation, BSP and Aamra Bangali have fielded their own candidates.
Devoid of any national issues, Darjeeling is set to go to the polls high on emotion. Voters in the plains and Hills will certainly go different ways, keeping their dispute alive for a long time to come.