Kolkata: The course of politics in the Darjeeling hills in the coming weeks will hinge on pending elections to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA).
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had announced on October 26 that elections, due since 2017, will be held after the completion of the revision of electoral rolls. “Right now, the voter list is being revised. Once this is done, we will go for GTA elections,” she said during an administrative meeting in Kurseong. Political leaders expect the revision to be complete by the first week of January.
The GTA was formed in 2012 during the first term of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government under a tripartite accord signed by the Centre, the state government and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). By then, GJM leader Bimal Gurung had emerged as the key politician in the hills dislodging Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) chief Subhas Ghising, whose sustained agitation for several years had culminated in the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988 during the third term of Left Front government.
Elections could become a sensitive issue with the political parties divided on the desirability of holding polls. Convinced that the GTA experiment has failed to deliver, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally GNLF are opposed to the elections as they want a ‘permanent political solution’ (PPS) that sufficiently empowers the hill people under the relevant provisions of the Constitution with Parliament’s approval.
On the other side, most political outfits believe that the elections will ensure people’s participation in grassroots democracy, even if limited, and their involvement in the planning and execution of development schemes. With no gram panchayat elections held since 2000, they feel that elections will ensure the participation of the locals in the administration.
The supporters of elections also believe there is utter confusion about the much-hyped PPS with nobody having any idea regarding its contours. Banerjee too has backed a PPS while stoutly opposing the demand for bifurcation of the state/formation of a Union Territory.
Besides the differences over holding elections, the political situation in the Darjeeling hills also has an interesting aspect. Gurung and the GJM, known BJP supporters from the beginning, switched support to the TMC some months ago. GJM faction leaders Benoy Tamang and Anit Thapa, who had parted ways with Gurung, too became TMC supporters. All the three leaders went on record to say they were disillusioned with the BJP and found Banerjee and the TMC dependable.
A few weeks ago, Thapa launched his Bhartiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) as president and activist Amar Lama as general secretary. Tamang had publicly said that he would begin “the third phase of his political career” with hints of floating an outfit. Senior politician Ajay Edwards, who recently left the GNLF, too has hinted at launching a party.
There are several unanswered questions: Will the TMC contest GTA elections? Will Gurung contest if asked by Banerjee? What will be the stance of Jan Andolan Party leader Harkabahadur Chhetri, who was the spokesperson of the united GJM for a long time before quitting it? Will the Communist Party of India (Marxist) contest? Is the Congress party keeping GTA polls in view?
Several political parties could regroup or merge expecting to make a mark in elections. For Thapa’s BGPM, launched on September 9, its maiden electoral plunge could be an opportunity. He has assigned the task to experienced politician Tilak Chand Roka, the party’s chief coordinator. Asked how he views the political situation in the hills, Roka said that people have become impatient after being denied active involvement in grassroots democracy. “There is a development vacuum,” he said.
Taking the upcoming opportunity seriously, the BGPM wants to position itself as a serious contender for power in GTA. “We will put up candidates in all the 45 seats and nominate women, tribal and other backward class workers. We are trying to gauge the attitude of voters and might be able to bring small entities under our umbrella,” Roka said.
Sandip Limbu, general secretary, GNLF’s Darjeeling branch, too feels that people’s aspiration for a role in the development process has been ignored. But BJP ally GNLF is opposed to the idea of GTA and elections. “GTA, as a concept and a political arrangement in place of DGHC, has been a flop. We call it unconstitutional because it was set up under a state Act. Ghising had challenged the GTA Act contending that for legal validity, the words ‘Gorkha Territorial Administration’ should replace the words ‘Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council’ in the Constitution”, he said.
According to a report in The Indian Express, during a hearing at the Calcutta High Court on September 15, 2012, the Centre accepted that a constitutional amendment was required to enforce the Act and that a Bill would be placed in Parliament soon. The matter remains sub-judice, Limbu said making it clear that the party “would organise protests against GTA election. We are firm on our demand for a PPS under the Constitution”.
GNLF spokesperson Mahendra Chhetri said that people prefer a stable workable arrangement under the Constitution. “So many issues are pending,” he said about the “inordinate delay” in granting scheduled tribe status to 11 tribes—Bhujel, Gurung, Mangar, Newar, Jogi, Khas, Rai, Sunuwar, Thami, Yakka (Dewan) and Dhimal. “In the 1931 Census, they had tribal status. We remain politically opposed to GTA elections,” he added.
When asked whether the TMC will contest GTA elections, the party’s Darjeeling district chief Papiya Ghosh said, “We will contest if Mamata asks us. Right now, we are devoting our time and energy to strengthening the Darjeeling unit. So many people have applied for TMC membership but we are being choosy. Only responsible applicants with an aptitude for political work are being given membership. We are getting help from poll strategist Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC,” she said.
Shakti Prasad Sharma, general secretary, Akhil Bhartiya Gorkha League (Bharti Tamang camp), Sharma said that his party is not opposed to GTA elections. “Since the expiry of the first term in 2017, the GTA is being run by administrators. This has to end and a political party that earns the trust of the voters should run the GTA in the interest of the people, who are tired of ad hoc arrangements,” he said ruling out his party contesting elections. Though the party can extend support to an outfit “which we find is committed to democracy and people’s welfare. Let Darjeeling return to debate and discussion mode”, he added.
The writer is a Kolkata-based senior freelance journalist. The views are personal.