It’s advantage Mamata in the hill politics of Bengal
Four months is a long time in politics. On June 8, when clashes broke out between Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters and the police in her presence in Darjeeling, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was on the backfoot, attracting nearly universal criticism for the reckless announcement that all students have to compulsorily learn Bengali till class 10. When the indefinite shutdown began on June 15, the criticism got shriller and reached a crescendo on June 17 when three protesters fell to the bullets of security forces. But by Monday – 123 days after June 8 – she seemed to have bounced back to a position of clear advantage.
In the fast shifting fortunes of hill politics in Bengal, let’s count the gains for each camp. GJM, the principal political force in the hills, have lost the most. There is a virtual split in the Morcha with its chief Bimal Gurung going underground. Mamata Banerjee, who identified Gurung as her principal opponent, has almost succeeded in isolating him and putting several of his lieutenants behind bars. By installing her own man Binay Tamang at the head of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, where he can distribute favours, Mamata has delivered a blow to the GJM and attract supporters to her fold.
The BJP is clearly in a position of discomfort as was evident during the three-day visit of its Bengal president Dilip Ghosh to the hills in north Bengal . He not only faced the embarrassment of being heckled without any help from the GJM supporters – Bimal Gurung’s faction is an ally of the NDA – but also had to face constant black flags and “go back” slogans. He repeatedly faced the question of why he did not come during the 104 days of shutdown and misery. People also wanted him to clear his stand on the question of Gorkhaland. Ghosh could hardly satisfy them.
Before the meeting to be convened by the union home secretary, the BJP is a tad uncomfortable as it has to do a tightrope walk on the central question of Gorkhaland. While the agitators will push hard for statehood, the BJP will find it difficult to come out with a clear stand. The party leaders know any move to consider statehood will be politically expensive as it will allow Mamata Banerjee to launch a high-decibel campaign against them for bifurcating the state. The BJP is eyeing at least half of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal in 2019 and, given half a chance, the Trinamool will use it to project the party as ‘anti-Bengal’.
For the Centre it will be especially uncomfortable since it is the single point authority to decide on the matter of a separate state. At a political level, BJP stated in the manifestos of 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls to “sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demand of the Gorkhas” and will be under pressure for quickly spelling out its position.
For Mamata Banerjee nothing can be a better lollypop before the polls. After having undergone the pains once in 1947, partition is a hated word in Bengal, and the chief minister is more than capable to whipping up passions on this ground. That the bandh has been called off is an additional matter of comfort for the administrator.
In June, Mamata Banerjee was accused of being insensitive to the identity question of the Gorkhas and constant attempts to curb autonomy in the hills. But those noises have almost fallen silent now. She has been able to scare away Bimal Gurung, engineer division in the GJM and push the BJP on the backfoot – all in a matter of four months.
Machiavellian you may say, but nothing succeeds like success.