Darjeeling: Amid Changed Political Equation, All Eyes on Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Polls

Out of the 277 candidates in the 45 constituencies of the GTA, 171 are independent candidates – the highest ever. Parties have alleged that the independents are 'proxy candidates' fielded by those who have stayed away from the polls.

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Darjeeling: “The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) elections are to be held. What will be the fate of parties not taking part,” wondered Anil Tamang, a taxi driver, breaking into a conversation with passengers, driving up the serpentine road to Darjeeling from the plains of Siliguri, in the northern part of West Bengal.

Similar questions have been doing the rounds in the Darjeeling hills from the time Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) had filed a writ petition at the Calcutta high court on May 10 praying for a stay of the GTA elections and challenging the constitutional validity of the GTA. Political outfits like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allies had been pinning their hope on the stay to give them the much required political leverage in the hills.

However, on June 24, the Calcutta high court gave a nod to the GTA elections as per schedule. The high court order said that there is no bar in the counting process or declaration of results.

GNLF, an ally of the BJP, dubbed the GTA “unconstitutional,” and had declared non-participation in the electoral process. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), an ally of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), too had demanded that the GTA elections be deferred.

However, political parties including the Hamro Party (HP), Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM,) Communist Party of India (Marxist), TMC and the Indian National Congress are all in the fray. These political parties opine that till the GTA is in existence, an elected sabha at the helm of affairs would ensure development in the hills.

Out of the 277 candidates in the 45 constituencies of the GTA, 171 are independent candidates – the highest ever. Political parties contesting the elections have alleged that these 171 independents are mostly “proxy candidates” fielded by those parties that have officially stayed away from the polls.

Being held after a gap of 10 years, the GTA elections are being seen as a battle between the newly formed HP and the BGPM. While HP is going to the polls with the ‘Parivartan‘ (change) mantra, the BGPM is focussed on the ‘Vavishya Nirman’ (constructing a bright future) line.

Hamro Party president Ajoy Edwards (inside the vehicle) on the campaign trail. Photo: Author provided

Both the parties were launched less than a year ago. The HP won the Darjeeling civic body polls in March this year, barely within three months of coming into existence.

Formation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration

The GNLF led by Subash Ghising had launched an agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland in 1986, leading to the loss of many lives. After 28 months of agitation culminating in a 40-day long bandh, the Centre, state and the GNLF worked out a solution in the form of an administrative body called the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC).

Later, disgruntled GNLF leader, Bimal Gurung, floated the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) on October 7, 2007. The GJM managed to oust Ghising and the GNLF from the hills. They resurrected the Gorkhaland agitation. After rounds of talks between the GJM, state and Centre, the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) took shape in 2012, thereby replacing the DGHC.

The GTA is a semi autonomous developmental body that comprises 45 constituencies with the hills of Darjeeling and the Kalimpong districts under its control.

Election to the GTA

The first GTA election was held in July 2012. During the polls, the GJM had fielded 45 candidates, CPI(M) had 13 candidates, and the TMC had fielded 17 candidates.

However, the CPI(M) later withdrew the names of all 13 candidates saying that the entire election process was “one-sided.” With only 17 TMC candidates along with one independent candidate remaining in the fray, the GJM won uncontested in 28 constituencies .

Later, TMC also withdrew all the 17 candidates from the GTA election. On July 21, 2012, TMC chief Mamata Banerje declared that the TMC was politically withdrawing from the GTA elections; a normal withdrawal wasn’t possible after July 12, 2012 – the last date of withdrawal.

With this sudden “political” withdrawal, it was a cakewalk for the GJM. The political party managed to win all 17 seats on July 29, 2012.

In June 2017, the Gurung-led GJM spawned an agitation for over 100 days, declaring that the TMC-led West Bengal government would forcefully impose Bengali language in the hills. Gurung, along with 42 elected and nominated members of the GJM, tendered their resignations from the GTA.

A joint movement was launched along with other pro-Gorkhaland forces. At least 11 people were killed in police firing during the agitation.

The GJM turned to the BJP-led Union Government for respite; however, no such political space was provided by the party so that the agitation could be retracted.

In September that year, senior GJM leaders Binoy Tamang and Anit Thapa were expelled from the party for alleged ‘anti-party’ activities. The economy was already in doldrums following the long agitation and a 105-day bandh. The term of the GTA had expired on July 30.

As it was not conducive to hold elections, the Bengal government appointed a nine-member ‘Board of Administrators’, headed by expelled GJM leader Binoy Tamang, to run the GTA in the hill areas.

Since the mass resignation of the GTA sabha members in 2017, the administrative boards with Tamang as the chairperson and Thapa as the vice-chairman have been running the GTA.

After holding a successful Darjeeling civic body election in February this year, the state government decided to go ahead with the GTA election. On March 28, during her visit to Darjeeling, chief minister Mamata Banerjee met with different hill political parties and gathered a consensus for holding GTA elections. She even assured that the GTA elections would be followed by Panchayat elections in the hills.

On May 27, the West Bengal government issued a notification saying that the GTA would be going to polls on June 26. Opposing the GTA elections, Bimal Gurung immediately launched a fast unto death.

“Things are going to be different this time. Earlier the party in power in the hills used to ensure the victory of any candidate they fielded. It was a cakewalk. Now things have changed. The voters weigh things carefully and vote. The political parties have realised this also. They cannot take people for a ride anymore,” said a tea garden worker, requesting anonymity.

BJP’s rise and survival in the region

The BJP had started its political journey in Bengal in 2009 having tied up with the GJM. It has been winning the Darjeeling Lok Sabha since 2009, thanks to the alliance with the GJM in 2009 and 2014 and the alliance with one faction of the GJM and GNLF in 2019.

From there they have steadily made inroads into Bengal politics.

The eight districts of North Bengal have always been a fertile ground for the saffron brigade’s expansion plans in the state. They bagged seven out the eight parliamentary seats in North Bengal in 2019.

In the hills, the saffron brigade’s parliamentary election manifesto had promised a permanent political solution for the Gorkhas along with the inclusion of 11 Gorkha sub-communities in the Scheduled Tribe list.

Despite losing the state assembly elections in Bengal, the BJP appears to hold sway in North Bengal. Out of the 54 seats in the last assembly elections in North Bengal, 31 fell in the BJP’s kitty; 22 went to the TMC and one to an independent candidate.

The saffron brigade started toying with the idea of carving out North Bengal into a separate state or a Union Territory. BJP leaders and public representatives from this region started fanning the idea, hinged on socio-economic, political and security issues.

Also read: Can North Bengal Afford Another Political Unrest Even as Bjp Fuels Statehood Demand?

However, with the party’s performance in the recently held Darjeeling civic body polls, it appears that the hills seem disillusioned with the saffron brigade. BJP and its allies failed to secure even a single seat out of 32.

“They are afraid that the same fate is in store for them in the GTA elections. This is why the GNLF [an ally of the BJP] hurriedly filed a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of the GTA and praying for a stay. They know that people have stopped buying their false assurances,” said Anit Thapa, president, BGPM.

“The GTA has been rejected by the masses. It is an obstacle to the fulfillment of the aspiration of the masses,” claimed Raju Bista, BJP MP from the Darjeeling constituency.

A cold shoulder

After absconding for three years, Gurung returned to the hills in October 2021. He severed ties with long-time ally BJP, and announced his support to chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

However, the GJM’s dismal performance in the assembly elections put Gurung in a catch-22 situation. Along with losing all the three hill seats, Gurung and his associates failed to deliver even in Terai and Dooars. The TMC lost in all seats where Gurung had claimed to have a sway and had campaigned for the TMC.

After the Bengal government gave a go-ahead to the GTA polls, Gurung sat for a five-day-long fast, demanding that the state government should honour the GTA agreement in letter and spirit and demanding inclusion of 396 mouzas of Terai and the Dooars in the GTA.

“We will not be taking part in the GTA elections as our demands have not been met,” said Roshan Giri, general secretary, GJM.

Party in power in the GTA controls hill politics

“The party at the helm of the GTA controls hill politics. The party in power in the GTA will have an added advantage in the forthcoming hill elections, including the panchayat and three hill municipalities,” said a political observer, requesting anonymity.

“The BJP and allies will face a political vacuum post GTA election. What issue will they tow? Granting Scheduled Tribe status to 11 communities seems far fetched. The BJP-led Union government will not accord any new administrative arrangement before the 2024 parliamentary elections. They will then try to reap political dividends in the hills by creating a new administrative arrangement,” explained the political observer cited above.

Also read: Eyewash or Damage Control?: BJP Announces Talk on Gorkha Demand, Opposition Questions Motive

“The BJP and our alliance partners have done our best to put a stop to this farce of an election to the GTA that is being imposed by the TMC government purportedly through legal means,” said Raju Bista, BJP MP from Darjeeling.

He further alleged that the GTA is a tool used by the TMC government to keep the region deprived and subjugated, while making a handful of politicians and contractors rich.

“We want to assure the people that our struggle against illegal GTA has just begun. The high court’s verdict has only made our resolve stronger to ensure complete eradication of this unconstitutional GTA once and for all,” the MP added.

The GNLF has echoed similar sentiments. “The writ challenging the constitutional validity of the GTA still stands in court. We will knock on the doors of the Calcutta high court as soon as the elections are over,” said Sandeep Limbu of the GNLF.

The Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM), which is also an ally of the BJP, has given a clarion call to the hills not to participate in the poll process on June 26.

TMC plays defensive, keeps its options open

The TMC has fielded 10 candidates in the 45 seats. “Despite expansion of the TMC in the hills over the years, the party has preferred to keep options open to alliances rather than trying to bulldoze their way through. Whichever party wins will be treated as an alliance for the TMC,” said the political observer.

“We will work towards regularisation of voluntary teachers, adhoc staff of the GTA, granting of land documents in tea gardens, cinchona plantation and forest villages. Minimum wages for tea garden workers is also on the cards,” said Binoy Tamang, who joined hands with the TMC after severing ties with the BJP.

On June 14, the Bengal government announced a 15% interim hike in daily wages and salary of tea garden workers till the minimum wage is finalised for the tea industry of Bengal.

The Hamro Party factor

Floated on November 25, 2021 by Ajoy Edwards, the philanthropic entrepreneur and owner of the famous heritage bakery Glenary’s, Hamro Party has emerged as a force to reckon with. Within three months of coming into existence, the party bagged 18 out of 32 seats of the Darjeeling Municipality, forming the civic board.

A Hamro party election rally. Photo: Author provided

Edwards had parted ways with the GNLF alleging that the party had used him and then discarded him. With a strong social media team working round the clock, Hamro Party has a fan following, especially among the youngsters.

“People are looking at a fresh alternative without any past political smudges,” an HP insider told The Wire.

“We will weed out corruption and nepotism from the GTA. We want to gift good governance to the people of the Hills. The GTA has been a den of corruption and nepotism ever since it came to existence. All this needs to be rectified. Our aspiration is a separate state but till the GTA is there it has to be run properly. We have to have people who are accountable. Daily necessities like health, education and livelihood have to be given priority,” Edwards told The Wire.

The BGPM style of politics

The BGPM, earlier known as the GJM (Anit Thapa faction) has been at the helm of affairs in the GTA. They have a strong organisation, especially in the rural areas and tea gardens.

BGPM president Anit Thapa in an election rally. Photo: Author provided

“I have always spoken the truth and have given no false assurances. I have stressed on politics of reality moving away from politics of emotions. I put myself on the line to reinstate peace, democracy and normality during the 2017 agitation. I do not promise Gorkhaland but If voted to power we will definitely move a resolution for Gorkhaland in the GTA sabha. The GTA will carry forward the separate state aspiration,” said Thapa.

The BGPM plans to address issues related to livelihood, including land documents, employment generation, promotion of tourism, and regularisation of temporary staff of the GTA. They are contesting in 36 seats along with support from some independent candidates.

GTA profile

The GTA comprises 45 constituencies spread across the Darjeeling, Kurseong and Mirik sub-divisions of the Darjeeling district along with the entire Kalimpong district located in the northern part of the state of West Bengal. There are more than seven lakh voters in the region.

Out of the 922 polling stations, five polling stations have been marked as critical and 101 vulnerable. Shrikhola Primary School is the highest polling station in the state located at an altitude of 2,800 metre. It is 12 kilometre (km) away from the nearest settlement of Rimbik, having motorable links with Darjeeling. It is also considered the third-highest polling station in the country.

The furthest polling station is Tangta Primary School in the Kalimpong district where one has to traverse 133 km by vehicle from Kalimpong town and then walk 4 km. Both the Shrikhola and Tangta booths – where polling personnel have to leave two days ahead of the polls from the Distribution Centre – are known as P-2 booths.

A total of 4,700 polling personnel have been deployed to conduct the elections. The Indo-Nepal international border in West Bengal has been closed down from June 25 till June 26 midnight owing to the polls.

Polling will take place from 7 am to 4 pm on June 26. The weather office has issued a yellow alert (heavy rainfall) for this region for the polling day.

“All necessary arrangements have been made. We are equipped to tackle any eventuality,” said S. Ponnambalam, District Magistrate, Darjeeling. Disaster Management and Quick Response teams have been kept on standby.