As an ace striker, Bhaichung Bhutia dribbled past defenders to put the ball in the opponents’ net.
On a different turf with a new goalpost – Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency – to shoot at, he has summoned his dribbling skills to negotiate the treacherous hills. With a bit of help from the driver of his vehicle, of course.
Most villages off the Hill Cart Road – the lifeline of Darjeeling – have no roads. The one to Gorabari village, where Trinamool Congress party candidate Bhutia campaigned the other day, was more up an extreme sport enthusiast’s alley, not a footballer’s.
“Campaigning has been very hectic but it has been worth the effort. The concept from the beginning was to try and reach out to people in remote places which, I don’t think, many candidates have done. Politicians should go to people and not expect them to come,” Bhutia said, as his car negotiated another steep bend.
From a 16-year-old greenhorn signed by East Bengal, Bhutia has won everything domestic football has had to offer and led his country to the first Asian Cup finals in 27 years. He is independent India’s only footballer to play professionally in England and get the Padmashree while still a player.
Bhutia co-owns a football club apart from heading the All India Football Federation’s technical committee. And to show solidarity with his Tibetan friends, he opting out of the Olympic torch run ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008.
It fetched him iconic status in the hills. So much so that Manoj Lepcha took a two-week unpaid leave from his workplace in Gujarat to come home and vote for Bhutia. “He is the ultimate star for all the boys from the hills. He is one of us,” he said.
Bhutia, in a T-shirt and Nehru jacket, didn’t disappoint him. He spoke calmly but firmly to the small gathering on way to village Balasan. Fluency in Nepalese makes Bhutia a ‘local’ despite being from Sikkim.
“People have a lot of expectations. I tell them if they want any change, they should go for an honest political leader. That’s what I can give them. I want to set a precedent to other leaders who will come from this region,” he said.
Campaigning has taken a toll on Bhutia’s fitness, but he has beaten fatigue to give a patient hearing to people’s problems.
Energy drinks have helped, so has soccer. “In football, it was all about taking a decision after you have heard everyone out. I wasn’t a perfect captain from the first day. It took me time. The same will happen here as well. People are in despair and I just want to bring them some hope,” he said.