Uncertain prospects for Trinamool in Darjeeling hills
The BJP-GNLF combine looks to gain from the disarray in the opposition camp as Bimal Gurung comes out of hiding and decides to support Mamata Banerjee.
THE prevailing political situation in the Darjeeling hills of north Bengal is perhaps the most unique aspect of the forthcoming Assembly election in the State. With former Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) supremo Bimal Gurung returning to hill politics after patching up with the Mamata Banerjee government, the ruling Trinamool Congress finds itself having to deal with the feuding GJM factions of Bimal Gurung and Binay Tamang and a strong united opposition of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). The government’s sudden reconciliation with Gurung, who was on the run from the law for the past three years in connection with the violent agitation demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland, seems to have rocked the political equilibrium in the hills. This may become counterproductive for the Trinamool and its allies.
Gurung, who ruled unchallenged for 10 years in the hills, had to go into hiding in June 2017 after the State government slapped a number of charges, including those under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), on him for his role in the agitation.
After six years of peace, Darjeeling erupted in violence in June 2017 and more than 10 people lost their lives in the prolonged unrest that followed. Normal life in the hill region came to a halt for 104 days. By the time Bimal Gurung lifted the bandh in September while still in hiding, the government had already moved in and formed an alliance with the Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa faction and restored peace in the region with an iron hand. However, the people expressed their anger against the government in the 2019 Lok Sabha election by handing Mamata Banerjee her most humiliating defeat yet in Darjeeling and voting overwhelmingly for the BJP candidate, who was backed by Bimal Gurung.
Although Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa, holding the reins of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), tried to usher in a period of peace and development, they were viewed as puppets of the Mamata Banerjee government, and in the byelection to the Darjeeling Assembly seat, Binay Tamang lost to Neeraj Zimba of the GNLF who had contested on the BJP ticket.
Gurung’s overture to Trinamool
It was in this situation that Bimal Gurung suddenly returned to Kolkata in October 2020. On arrival, he announced that he was breaking ties with the BJP and pledged to support Mamata Banerjee in the forthcoming Assembly election. The Trinamool, finding itself increasingly cornered in north Bengal, accepted Gurung’s overture and thereby introduced a fresh spell of political uncertainty in the hills.
With anti-State government sentiment still high in Darjeeling, the new development has not gone down well with the people of the hills. This is making the Trinamool apprehensive of its chances of performing well in the election. A Trinamool source in the hills told Frontline: “This was a bad decision by the State government. Gurung is nobody minus Gorkhaland. His presence will only create unrest in the Trinamool and the Binay-Anit camps.”
Harka Bahadur Chhetri, who had won the Kalimpong Assembly seat on the GJM ticket but subsequently left the party, agrees that the political situation in the hills is “complicated”. He said: “On the one hand, the factions of Binay Tamang and Bimal Gurung claim that they are working for the Trinamool, but on the other they are at each other’s throat almost all the time, and this has confused the general public. If this continues, the BJP will stand to benefit. But the BJP has betrayed the trust of the people. In certain ways the Trinamool is better for the hills than the BJP.” He also admitted that the anger of the people of the hills towards the State government has not subsided either.
For long, Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa suffered the scorn of Gurung’s followers for bowing to the pressure of the government while Gurung had continued to fight for a separate Gorkhaland. By allying himself with Mamata Banerjee, Gurung is perceived to have turned his back on the issue of Gorkhaland. “If people think Anit Thapa and Binay Tamang are traitors, then so is Bimal Gurung now. His followers have been leaving his camp and joining the BJP in droves, and there is nothing we can do about it,” a Trinamool source told Frontline.
Recognition of Tamang and Thapa
On January 19, Tilak Chand Roka, a trusted lieutenant of Gurung and one of the founding members of the GJM, quit the party, but said he would continue in politics. In fact, there has been a softening of feelings towards Tamang and Thapa after Gurung returned, and there is a grudging recognition of the four years of peace and development since the 2017 outburst. Moreover, the ordinary Trinamool supporter has not forgotten the fact that they were at the receiving end of Gurung’s policy of gaining complete control in the hills. “Our people will not be voting for Bimal, that much is certain,” a Trinamool worker told Frontline.
The main thrust of the Trinamool-GJM campaign is that the BJP, in spite of being voted for three consecutive terms, has still not done anything to fulfil the aspiration or demand of the hills people for a separate State.
Binny Sharma, senior Trinamool leader from Darjeeling, told Frontline: “People of the hills have accepted that peace and development are the need of hour, and have realised that the BJP has fooled them for the last 12 years. The BJP has only given us false promises, whereas no other Chief Minister has done as much as Mamata Banerjee for the hills.”.
The GNLF, the BJP’s main ally, is hoping to make the most of the state of disarray in the Trinamool-GJM camp. Neeraj Zimba, GNLF leader and Darjeeling MLA, told Frontline: “The BJP will be granting tribal status to 11 Gorkha communities, which is a long-standing demand of ours, and has promised a permanent political solution to our demand for Gorkhaland. The GJM is a divided house, and I see no chance of them uniting. Besides, they have no real issues to hold up.”
The Trinamool agrees that unless Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa bury the hatchet with the Gurung faction, the GNLF-BJP combine will have an advantage.