A football star, an academician and a former parliamentarian are locked in a battle in North Bengal’s Darjeeling hills, where the Gorkhaland movement rages. And the results will determine whether Gorkhaland would be the next Telangana.
The ruling Trinamool Congress, which poured cold water on the statehood demand, has fielded India’s former soccer captain, Bhaichung Bhutia.
The two others in the three-cornered contest are BJP’s SS Ahluwalia, and independent candidate Mahendra Lama.
Ahluwalia is backed by the pro-Gorkhaland Gorkha Janamukti Morcha, which recently entered into an alliance with the BJP. But he faces a tough contest.
Unlike the last time, GJM’s appeal has diminished considerably.
“There is a perception that Bimal Gurung has compromised on the statehood demand. The 40-day strike — after statehood was granted to Telangana — backfired, and people were angry,” admitted a party insider.
But the GJM, he added, still has the best “organisational network”.
The TMC is hoping to sweep the plains and get a fraction of the hill votes — the seat has three hill assembly segments, with around six lakh voters, and four in the plains with eight lakh voters.
And party chief Mamata Banerjee has shrewdly played ethnic politics within the Nepali community by creating a Lepcha cultural board and promising a similar set up to Tamangs to wean them away from the broader Gorkha identity.
Bhutia hopes as a person from the hills, he would draw support. But he is from Sikkim, and Gangtokand Darjeeling share cold ties. Plus, there is the extra baggage of hostility to Trinamool.
“He may be a star, but people here are conscious that the party he represents is against our key issue,” said a Darjeeling lawyer on condition of anonymity.
Lama, a former vice-chancellor of Sikkim University, also poses a challenge.
Lama is committed to the statehood demand and is projecting himself as the ‘son of the soil’ against two “outsiders”. He can cut into GJM votes, but is hampered by the lack of organisational support will hurt him.
A variable will be the stance of the chairman of Gorkha National Liberation Front, and the man who ran Darjeeling for 20 years, Subash Ghising.
After being hounded out of the hills by GJM seven years ago, he is back in Darjeeling and is understood to control around 80,000 votes.
Which way Ghising will tilt may well determine the outcome.