As was expected, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) swept the elections to the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal, winning all 45 seats practically unopposed.
In fact, two weeks before polling day, July 29, the GJM had secured a de facto majority. It was elected unopposed in 28 seats, as all other important hill parties, including the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM), abstained, citing ideological reasons. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) claimed that its candidates had been forced to withdraw their nominations following pressure and intimidation allegedly from GJM supporters. In the remaining 17 seats, the GJMs main opponent was the Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in the State, which announced at the last minute that it would opt out of the fray. We are putting the interest of the hills and the State above political interest, explained Chief Minister and Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee.
Though it was too late to withdraw nominations, Trinamool candidates refrained from campaigning in the last week of the run-up to the elections as per the directions of their party leader. However, in spite of that, a section of the electorate voted in favour of the Trinamool, which secured as much as 10-15 per cent of the votes in some of the seats it contested. This may be indicative of the disenchantment among the people of the hills with the GJM.
In a clear reference to such a sentiment, GJM supremo Bimal Gurung said: The number of votes that the Trinamool has managed to get is the total number of supporters that the different opposition parties in the hills have. However, that does not explain how the independent candidate Sanchavir Subba from Gidbaling-Nimbong constituency in Kalimpong managed to secure 3,418 votes, just 677 fewer than the victorious GJM candidate.
It is unlikely that the election results would have been much different if all the other parties had contested. There is no doubt that the GJM is by far the strongest political force in the region. In the 2011 elections to the State Assembly, it won all three seats in the Darjeeling hills, polling 90 per cent of the votes.
According to some observers, the GJMs authoritarian ways may be a reason for its declining popularity. Others feel the disenchantment stems from the partys acceptance of the GTA, which is being viewed as a departure from its demand for Gorkhaland.
It may be recalled that when Mamata Banerjee announced at the yearly Martyrs Day rally in Kolkata on July 21 that her candidates would skip the GTA elections, the GJM responded by pledging to shelve its separatist movement as long as she was in power.
However, after the results were announced on August 2, party general secretary Roshan Giri made it clear that the Gorkhaland movement was not being abandoned. This victory does not mean that the demand for Gorkhaland has died out. The functioning of the GTA will go along with this demand, he said.
Even though the Central and State governments harped on development at the swearing-in ceremony, the elected members made it a point to hail Gorkhaland from the podium, as if renewing an old pledge. Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Mamata Banerjee, who were present at the function, announced financial packages for the hills and exhorted the GJM leadership to function in a responsible manner. Shinde said that the Centre would provide Rs.200 crore in the next three years, while Mamata Banerjee announced that the State government had already sanctioned over Rs.100 crore for various development projects. Whatever you need, ask for it, but do not quarrel with us, Mamata said.
But though she has bought temporary peace in the hills with the establishment of the GTA and the promise of development, the cheers from the crowds every time Gorkhaland was hailed proved that the agitation in the hills was not over the issue of development alone but over identity. In the end, if a party has to remain in power, it cannot separate Gorkhaland from the politics of the hills, said a political observer in Darjeeling.Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay