For a change, development, not Gorkhaland, has emerged as the dominant election issue in Darjeeling. Ironically, this has become possible primarily because of attempts by two pro-Gorkhaland camps to increase their hold by not contesting the polls.
In the past, elections were either fought or boycotted over the Gorkhaland issue since candidates from major parties were mostly men from the Hills. This time, too, the three main contestants — Mani Thapa (CPM), Dawa Narbula (Congress) and G.S. Yonzone (BJP) - are Nepali-speaking people.
Currently, Gorkhaland supporters are divided between the People’s Democratic Front (PDF) and the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Among the PDF constituents, the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) and the GNLF (CK Pradhan faction) are rabidly anti-Ghisingh. They accuse him of surrendering the statehood demand to the Left Front government.
Of the seven Assembly segments, the GNLF controls three (Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong), the CPM two (Siliguri and Phansidewa) and the Congress two (Islampur and Chopra). Siliguri and Phansidewa have a sizeable number of hill voters. To wrest the seat from the CPM, the Congress has aligned with the PDF. With this, the Congress hopes to narrow its gap with the Marxists in the plains. It lost the last two Lok Sabha polls because of the GNLF’s boycott call that kept the largely anti-CPI(M) hill population away from the booths.
Having enjoyed the benefits of the GNLF’s abstention from previous elections, the CPI(M) continues to handle Ghisingh with a lot of care. Urban Development Minister Asok Bhattacharya, who hails from Siliguri, criticises the PDF more than any other party for its earlier association with the BJP and its support to the Gorkhaland cause.
To save the Congress from embarrassment in the plains, senior PDF leader and ABGL president Madan Tamang says, “Instead of Gorkhaland, we’ll concentrate more on the failures of the GNLF-administered Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Autonomous Council and the plight of tea garden workers.” Water scarcity and unemployment have also become major poll issues. The CPI(M), which recently lauded the GNLF for not raking up the Gorkhaland issue, has opposed the NDA its major poll plank, development. Over 200 Marxist cadres from the hills had died while resisting the Ghisingh-led Gorkhaland stir in 1986-88.
When the GNLF boycotted polls earlier, it was accused of indirectly helping the CPI(M) win the seat. It may again face similar allegations because its trade union, the Himalayan Plantation Workers’ Union (HPWU), has called for a poll boycott in cinchona plantations. Keeping in mind the PDF’s demand for de-recognition of the GNLF by the Election Commission, HPWU (cinchona) chief N.B. Chhettry says, “We have given the boycott call on our own. It is for the development of cinchona plantations. It has got nothing to do with the GNLF.”
However, the GNLF’s decision not to field any candidate has reinforced fears about a possible boycott of the polls by it. The Congress and its allies feel that other frontal wings of the GNLF may back the HPWU’s call. So far, the GNLF leadership has remained tight lipped on the HPWU’s boycott call.