Northern West Bengal's Darjeeling constituency, comprising the picturesque hills that have witnessed a separate statehood movement for the last four decades and large tracts of plains, will see a political battle spanning out over the promises of peace, stability and development on one side and the restoration of Gorkha pride and sentiment on the other in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The famous tourist destination, which shimmered with violence, agitations and a 108-day-long shutdown in 2017 over the demand for a separate Gorkhaland to be curved out of the north Bengal hills, will go to the hustings on April 18. All four prominent parties of the state - Trinamool Congress, BJP, Left Front spearhead CPI-M and Congress have fielded candidates.
However, the current socio-political scenario in the hills suggests that it would become a two-pronged battle between the two factions of the Gorkha Janamukti Mocha that has spearheaded the statehood agitation for long.
While former GJM supremo Bimal Gurung's faction is backing the BJP and has formed an alliance with another major hill outfit, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the faction headed by Gurung's former general and current GJM chief Binay Tamang, has allied with the Trinamool.
The BJP, which won the Lok Sabha seat over the last two terms by fielding political heavyweights like Jaswant Singh in 2009 and S.S. Alhuwalia in 2014, has opted for a 33-year-old Gorkha entrepreneur from Manipur, Raju Singh Bista, while Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress has nominated veteran GJM leader and Darjeeling MLA Amar Singh Rai.
The Congress has fielded a local leader, Shankar Malakar. The CPI-M nominee is another local and ex-Rajya Sabha MP, Saman Pathak.
Apart from three hill Assembly segments - Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong - the constituency, mostly dominated by Gorkhas and other hill tribes, also includes four Assembly segments in the foothills and plains - Matigara-Naxalbari, Siliguri, Phansideoa and Chopra.
Of the around 16 lakh electors in the constituency, close to 6.5 lakh are from three Assembly constituencies in the hills where a huge section of the population supports the Gorkhaland demand and had gone with the BJP in the last two elections.
But the voters from the rest of the four Assembly constituencies have divided loyalties, with the Left Front, Trinamool and Congress each having their vote share.
Claiming that restoration of Gorkha pride and reinstating democratic rights by ending the oppression "let loose" by the state government are the main issues in Darjeeling in 2019, GNLF spokesperson Neeraj Zimba said their alliance with BJP will ensure Bista's triumph with an even bigger margin than the last time as the people in the hills were "eager to vote" against Binay Tamang and his allies who "betrayed the community and derailed the popular Gorkhaland movement by joining hands with the Trinamool".
"Actually there was a phenomenal response by the people of Darjeeling. The enthusiasm towards the alliance between the BJP and the GJM-GNLF shows that we believe we will win with an even bigger margin than last time. The BJP's decision to field a Gorkha candidate will also go in our favour. So it will very much be a clean sweep," Zimba told IANS.
"People here are looking for a permanent political solution in the highest form of constitutional autonomy. They will vote in favour of BJP as it has always tried to accommodate the Gorkha aspirations in its political manifesto while the Bengal government has clearly stated that they oppose the idea of Gorkhaland," he said.
Talking about the 10 lakh-odd voters in the foothills and plains, Zimba said the saffron outfit had made significant inroads among the Hindi-speaking people in the area while the Bengali vote will be divided amongst the Left, Congress and Trinamool, giving the BJP an overall advantage.
Asked if the BJP's decision to choose Bista, who is not from Darjeeling, could dampen the spirit of the locals, Zimba said: "When we talk about Gorkhas it is not about just those staying in the Darjeeling but it is about the 1.5 crore Gorkhas residing across India. When we could vote for S.S. Alhuwalia, why can't we vote for someone of our own?"
The Trinamool Congress-GJM candidate Amar Singh Rai, however, claimed he was confident of winning as the people of Darjeeling were fed up with the violence and strikes and want peace in the hills.
"The BJP is not aware of the ground reality as they do not come here. People want peace, prosperity in the hills. They have suffered a lot and have realised that Darjeeling has gone 20 years backwards due to the constant agitations and strikes. They do not want the same things to be repeated," Rai told IANS.
Rai, once a vocal supporter of the statehood demand, said Gorkhaland was a not a major election issue this time as people have realised that it cannot be achieved unless the national parties support the demand.
He said if voted to power, he would push for major developmental issues in the region like identifying the Nepalese and Gorkhas as a linguistic minority group and handing them constitutional privileges, land rights for the farmers and tea garden workers and uniformity in land rates.
Referring to the BJP nominee Bista as "an outsider who does not have any idea about the region", Rai contended that choosing such a candidate shows the BJP's despising attitude towards the Gorkhas.
Also of interest in the constituency is the hold fugitive GJM leader Bimal Gurung still commands.
While the Trinamool supported faction claimed that Gurung had lost his relevence in the hills due to his long absence, the opposing faction termed him the true leader of the Gorkhas and said his support to the GJM-GNLF alliance will sway many voters towards them.
(Milinda Ghosh Roy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)