TMC suffers double blow in Darjeeling: Outcome of LS election, Assembly bypoll underlines potency of Gorkha identity issue
If a silent majority — which had its share of discontent over Mamata's aspirations to chart a new future for Darjeeling — was awaiting a chance to speak, it may have found a voice in the recent Assembly bypoll and Lok Sabha election, in which BJP was rewarded with resounding victories.
TMC lost both Darjeeling Lok Sabha election and the Assembly bypoll from the hills to BJP in the recently-concluded elections
Together, these outcomes have the potential of realigning the state of politics in the region
The electoral outcome only underlines the potency of Gorkha identity as a metaphor for self-empowerment in the region.
As if multiple setbacks in different parts of West Bengal during the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election were not bad enough, the result of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat has dealt a body-blow to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s plans to expand Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) electoral footprint in the region. To make matters worse, Binoy Tamang, the TMC-supported Independent candidate for the local Assembly bypoll who has been central to her initiatives in the hills, also lost badly.
Together, these outcomes have the potential of realigning the state of politics there.
Was it that a silent majority — which had its share of discontent over Mamata's aspirations to chart a new future for the hills — abetted by sections of the local political leadership, serving as foot-soldiers, awaiting an opportunity to speak? If so, it may have found a voice in the recent elections, rewarding the BJP with resounding victories in both Assembly bypoll and Lok Sabha election. The emotionally-charged issue of Gorkha identity that has re-positioned itself in the foreground of the collective political imagination seems to have outflanked Mamata's attempts to seize the initiative in the hills on the back of an agenda framed by the purported 'development' narrative.
The electoral outcome only underlines the potency of Gorkha identity as a metaphor for self-empowerment in the region. It serves as a reminder that the ethnically-powered sentiment which feeds it, had, by no means, waned — and at best, only been silenced in the course of the state administration's crackdown, following the 104-day agitation in the hills for a separate Gorkhaland state in 2017. It was in the aftermath of the June-September 2017 unrest then that Mamata sought to consolidate her grip over a deeply troubled region. If her efforts and political manoeuvrings were then aimed at recasting the local political storyline, the election results are now being perceived as a possible game-changer with wider consequences.
True that the result of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha election was determined largely by the voting pattern in the plains, which account for four of the seven Assembly segments of the constituency. But how the hills decide has always had a significant impact, notwithstanding the hills-plains divide with its contrasting political sensitivities particularly on the Gorkha identity issue.
An endorsement of the importance of the issue, which had propelled the statehood demand over the years, came in the form of a second rejection — this time of Mamata's acolyte, Binay Tamang, in the vote for the Darjeeling Assembly bypoll, handing the BJP its maiden victory in the seat. The message from the hills could not have been more unequivocal.
But how far was the Lok Sabha contest in the hills actually one between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress? The flags of the two parties might have dominated the landscape in the course of the electioneering, yet there can be little denying that the actual battle was fought between allies of the two rival camps of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
Ever since the split within the GJM in the aftermath of the 2017 statehood agitation, the party has become the site of a proxy war waged between the BJP leadership and Mamata with an eye to electoral supremacy in the hills.
It is indeed ironic that the political destinies of the two leaders at the helm of these rival factions — both of whom claim to represent the ‘official’ party are, to say the least — are overwrought. While Bimal Gurung —whose camp is allied with the BJP — has been on the run ever since a slew of charges was slapped against him in connection with the violence during the 2017 stir, Tamang has had his political credibility severely dented, having lost the contest for the Assembly seat.
Tamang, who was anointed by Mamata in 2017 as chairperson of the board of administrators of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) propped up by her to run hills' affairs, had earlier resigned from his administrative post. The very decision of him accepting the post made him unpopular among his constituents, who perceived it as a repudiation of the statehood cause. The recent polls were the first popularity test for him in his new avatar. The consequences have been devastating for one who had spoken of quitting politics in the event of a defeat.
Till less than two years ago, the two leaders had stood side-by-side, at the vanguard of the campaign for 'Gorkhaland'. Today, the fugitive leader that he has been, Gurung remains steadfast on the statehood demand. As for Tamang, it was not without a touch of sarcasm did he wonder in the wake of his electoral defeat whether the BJP would now grant statehood to the hills over the coming five years in power at the Centre.
The local buzz is dominated by questions whether the decision of Amar Singh Rai, the losing TMC nominee in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, to contest on that party’s ticket despite his primary allegiance to the GJM has been irreparably costly. In contrast, Gurung’s faction of the GJM steered clear from the fray, even though the ultimate winners in the Lok Sabha and Darjeeling Assembly seats, both nominees of the BJP, might arguably not have come up trumps without his support, albeit in absentia.
While Raju Bista, a relative newcomer in local politics, was the choice of the BJP mandarins for the Lok Sabha seat, Neeraj Zimba, who won the Assembly bypoll on that party’s ticket, is a leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) — a regional political grouping once courted by Mamata. It should be noted that the GNLF was the forerunner of the GJM in the campaign for a separate state, having lit the first fuse in the mid-1980s.
The hill’s mandate might have been decisive but that does not make the political future of the region any less uncertain, particularly as doubts persist over how well grounded the BJP national leadership might be in the region’s political intricacies.
The party’s assurance in its election manifesto of a “permanent political solution” to outstanding local problems has its share of sceptics. And, in defeat, Mamata might be ruing not having given adequate and timely credence to the identity issue, leaving it till what turned out to be disastrously too late in her electioneering.
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