Kolkata: In the political playground of North Bengal, which has two distinct segments, the hills and the plains, the situation at this point lacks clarity even as there appears to be triangular fight among the Trinamool Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left-Congress alliance.
The assessment of political parties and independent observers is that announcement of the Assembly poll schedule by the Election Commission will force the pace and there will be clarity.
It is not yet clear as to what role Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung, whose field of activity for a long time has been Darjeeling, will be able to play, if at all. Poll consultant and image maker Prashant Kishore, whose relevance to Mamata Banerjee and her party Trinamool Congress (TMC) has steadily increased in recent months, is virtually dictating the TMC strategy for North Bengal, where the party fared poorly in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
How effective Gurung can be in the upcoming Assembly elections is a question that has risen from his decision to sever his nine-year-old connection with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and support the TMC. Gurung made this dramatic announcement in the city on October 21, 2020, when he resurfaced after being on the run for over three years.
Before becoming a fugitive around mid-2017, he had led a 104-day violent strike over the Gorkhaland issue and the Mamata Banerjee-led state administration had slapped many cases against him and even applied the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The GJM split during his absence; one of his trusted lieutenants Binoy Tamang emerged as the other GJM faction leader with Anit Thapa lending Tamang full support. The Tamang-Thapa duo pledged their group’s support to the TMC. Now, therefore, both the GJM factions are backing the TMC. Those with knowledge of inside workings of the parties assert that Kishore has been instrumental behind Gurung rethinking the GJM’s ties with the BJP.
Related with this development in North Bengal’s politics are two key issues. First, whether Gurung’s decision means a setback for the BJP, which did extremely well in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by bagging seven of the eight parliamentary constituencies in North Bengal. Secondly, Prashant Kishore, perhaps, has realised that as a GJM faction leader, Gurung may not mean much, that too at a time when Mamata badly needs to regain as much of the lost ground as possible from the BJP. The region has 54 Assembly seats. For the GJM support to be meaningful to Mamata, Kishore will have to bring about a rapprochement between the two GJM factions. Is that possible ?
On the other hand, the BJP leaders NewsClick spoke to do not consider Gurung’s shift to the TMC a setback for the party. Darjeeling Lok Sabha MP Raju Bista said, “We would not have been able to win seven out of eight Lok Sabha seats in this part of the state had the people of the hills and the plains not spontaneously voted for our candidates. People have first-hand experience of the mis-governance and dictatorial stance of the TMC ministry.”
Bista refuted allegations of the Centre neglecting development of North Bengal and cited an instance of the state government’s refusal to cooperate with the Centre. The Airport Authority of India (AAI) wants to construct a new terminal and allied infrastructure at the Bagdogra airport at a cost of Rs 600 crore. The AAI is prepared to pay Rs 25 crore for the required 104 acres of land to the state government but the chief minister has done little to hand over the land. The inclusion of the 675-km Siliguri-Kolkata road connectivity project in the Union budget for 2021-22 and the provision for several schemes under the Bharatmala project indicate the Centre’s sincerity about North Bengal’s development, Bista said.
“I don’t deny the GJM did have a base, but people have turned against the TMC and therefore, Gurung’s support to the TMC will only generate anger. He is underestimating people’s aversion towards the incumbent regime”, the Darjeeling Lok Sabha member said.
BJP Lok Sabha MP from Balurghat in Dakshin Dinajpur district, Sukanta Majumdar too sounded confident about his party’s show at the Assembly elections. “We may do even better [than Lok Sabha polls]; people feel they can count on the BJP to deliver. The TMC government’s failure to set up industries and generate employment opportunities is a sore point with the electorate. Thousands of people from the state migrate frequently to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and other places for their livelihood. This means their staying away from their home and hearth for months together. There is frustration among the migrants. Joblessness, therefore, has become a big issue”, Majumdar told NewsClick.
Union home minister Amit Shah’s recent announcements in Cooch Behar about the formation of Narayani Sena as a battalion in the Central paramilitary forces, a training centre for the force and a cultural centre, had gone down well with the Rajbanshis, who form a sizeable electorate, the Balurghat parliamentarian told NewsClick The Narayani Sena was originally the force of the Cooch Behar kings who had staved off the aggressive Mughals and their acts of valour are widely known in the region.
Senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and Mayor of Siliguri Ashok Bhattacharya, however, is of the view that the political situation in North Bengal at the moment is fluid. Development issues have taken a back seat; the BJP MPs have done precious little to highlight the area’s concerns. Tea gardens in Darjeeling have their own tale of woes, Bhattacharya said. Asked if the CPI(M) has been able to step up its political activity, he told NewsClick that political activity was continuing and the party was trying to ensure that the development narrative took the centre stage in the campaigns. But, the TMC and the BJP seemed to prefer engaging themselves in a slugfest. “That makes our job difficult”, he observed.
Darjeeling district secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Saman Pathak, who is a former Rajya Sabha member, said both the BJP and the TMC were exploiting the people by raising ethnic issues. “The prevailing situation has forced us to ask the electorate to consider their right to franchise as a serious matter and make it a conscience mandate.”
The political implications of Gurung withdrawing support to the BJP and teaming up with the TMC and the Gorkha National Liberation Front joining the BJP as an ally may not count for much, Pathak said.
Senior Congress leader and MLA from the Matigara-Naxalbari constituency, Sankar Malakar has a different take on the future. Malakar told NewsClick : “There is a perception that the BJP will be a force in the forthcoming battle and the party will repeat its Lok Sabha show. But, the fact remains that it does not have a sound organisation. Moreover, considerations of the electorate differ depending on whether it is a Lok Sabha election or an Assembly election. Mamata is trying hard to make her party relevant. The Left-Congress’ efforts to be counted is slowly being taken note of by the voters. In my assessment, it will be a triangular fight in North Bengal. The BJP can’t repeat the 2019 show.”
With both GJM factions separately pledging support to the TMC, it will be logical for Kishore to attempt a reconciliation between Gurung and Tamang. But judging by what GJM general secretary and Gurung’s close aide Roshan Giri told NewsClick, it won’t be that easy. “There is no question of an understanding between them. We will make them understand that we are still a force to reckon with. The BJP betrayed us; therefore, we are backing the TMC. Mamata has a better track record of keeping her words. Yes, Prashant Kishore has been instrumental in putting place a new strategy and inducing us to rethink. I am pretty optimistic. Things will fall in place”.
Along with Kishore, a minister is also in the picture. Giri said he will not like to disclose the minister’s name. According to informed sources, state’s labour and law minister Moloy Ghatak is trying to progress matters along with the election strategist.
While talking to NewsClick, Tamang did not appear to be stiff on the issue of an understanding. He has been steadfast in his support to the TMC and, therefore, just because Gurung has opted to become an ally of the TMC, Mamata cannot tick off Tamang. Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts have three Assembly seats and Tamang confirmed to NewsClick that he will put up candidates in the three constituencies and under the subsisting understanding with Mamata, the TMC has to support the GJM candidates for Assembly elections. There may be a meeting point if PK and minister Ghatak can persuade the Gurung faction to support the nominees of Tamang in the elections. But then it would be a challenge for Gurung sell that deal to his followers. Maybe a relief from the many cases slapped against him by the Mamata administration for the violent 104 day-long strike in Darjeeling could be an incentive.