Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s gambit to set aside three Darjeeling Hill seats to its allies has further fragmented the already faction-ridden hill politics.
Two factions of her ally, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) — one led by Bimal Gurung and the other by Binay Tamang — are both adamant on contesting the three seats in the upcoming assembly elections.
“We will field candidates in all three seats. There is no question of entering into an understanding with the Tamang group,” said Roshan Giri, general secretary of the Gurung faction of the GJM.
Meanwhile, the Tamang faction has already announced its candidates for the three seats — Keshavraj Pokhrel (Darjeeling), Tshering Dahal (Kurseong), and Ruden Sada Lepcha (Kalimpong) — on Sunday (March 21). The rival Gurung faction said it would name its candidates for the same three seats on Thursday.
The GJM suffered a split in 2017 over a difference on the continuation of a record 105-day shutdown that the outfit had been enforcing in the hills to press for a separate Gorkhaland state. Then GJM joint secretary, Binay Tamang, suspended the agitation against the wishes of the party founder and chief Bimal Gurung, who was in hiding at that time.
In the absence of Gurung, Tamang faction also took control of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous body.
The chain of events was kind of an action replay of what Gurung did in 2007 with his mentor Subhash Ghising, the pioneer of the Gorkhaland movement. Gurung had then severed ties with the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) to float the GJM.
Many had then alleged that the state government had engineered the split. Ten years later the state again stood accused of ditching Gurung for Tamang, who is considered a moderate face of the movement.
The 2017 split helped restore peace in the hills. But the firebrand Gurung, despite being on the run after several cases were filed against him, remained the most popular leader in Darjeeling hills. It was his support that helped the BJP retain the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in 2019, though the Tamang faction of the GJM backed the TMC.
The TMC has never won Darjeeling Lok Sabha or Assembly seats.
Gurung also reportedly influenced results in favour of the BJP in over a dozen other seats in the Dooars and Terai regions, where there are a sizeable Nepali population.
In an unexpected turn of events in October last year, Gurung suddenly surfaced in Kolkata, and announced his party’s decision to snap ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He declared his support to the TMC, a development perceived as a potential political game-changer in the hills, Dooars and Terai regions.
Gurung’s return to the hills, however, was not welcomed by his erstwhile colleagues in the Tamang camp. Several attempts by the TMC to bring the allies on the same page failed to yield any positive response from either side.
It is learnt that the Trinamool leadership has now given up the hope of a patch up between its two allies after Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew, and political strategist Prashant Kishor failed to broker truce between the warring factions in a last ditch attempt last month.
After the failed attempt, the TMC reportedly conveyed to the allies that it would join with whichever of the two wins in the three hill seats.
A vote split between the two GJM factions would reverse the advantage Banerjee had hoped to gain in the hills where the BJP had been consistently doing well since 2009 parliamentary elections with the help of Gorkha outfits, opined local leaders.
A division of votes would naturally be advantageous for the BJP, said Harka Bahadhur Chhetri, a senior politician from the region.
The BJP is gearing up for the contest in the hills as an ally of the GNLF and the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM).
The GNLF after the death of Ghising is now a shadow of its former self and the CPRM’s influence is limited to only a few pockets.
“But in a triangular contest where the two GJM factions will be in the fray, the BJP will have an edge,” said senior Siliguri-based journalist Probir Pramanik, who has been covering Gorkha politics for about three decades now.
Recent defections of Tilak Chandra Roka and some other leaders from Gurung camp to the BJP further bolstered the saffron brigade.
The challenge for the BJP now will be to keep their ticket aspirations at bay. If the new entrants insist on contesting with BJP ticket, then it could rock the alliance with the GNLF, which is keen on fielding its own candidates in all the three seats set to go to polls during the fifth phase on April 17.
Pramanik said a victory of the BJP-led coalition in the hills could revive the Gorkhaland demand as the saffron party has committed to find a “permanent political solution” to the vexed issue.