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Shifting Tides: The Evolving Political Landscape of Darjeeling Lok Sabha Constituency

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are just a few months away, the question of who will represent Darjeeling as the MP in this election becomes paramount. According to political analysts, the candidacy this time around may revolve around the theme of ‘son of the land’ versus ‘outsider.’ This is evident in the slogans raised by BJP MLA BP Bajgain from Kurseong in the Darjeeling hill region, who has repeatedly emphasised the ‘Bahari-Bahari’ aspect in relation to Darjeeling MP Raju Bisht, who is from the same party, the BJP.

tanzil asif Reported By Tanzil Asif |
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The Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency stands out as a unique electoral battleground, where national parties have historically not wielded substantial influence. However, it’s intriguing that, upon closer examination of its electoral history, with only a few exceptions, national parties have managed to secure victory in this region. Over the past decade, this constituency has increasingly become a stronghold for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this can be attributed not to the party’s inherent strength but rather to the dynamics within the political landscape of the Darjeeling hill region.

With consecutive wins by Jaswant Singh in 2009, SS Ahluwalia in 2014, and Raju Bisht in 2019, the BJP achieved an impressive trifecta of victories in this parliamentary constituency. However, as we approach the 2024 elections, the outcome may diverge from this pattern. The shifting political equations in the region indicate that a change may be on the horizon.

Why Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat is important?

The Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat holds significant importance, not just within the state of West Bengal but also on a national scale for several compelling reasons.

First and foremost, Darjeeling is a globally renowned tourist destination, often referred to as the “Queen of the Mountains.” Its breathtaking natural beauty, including the majestic Himalayan landscapes, lush valleys, and the world-famous Darjeeling tea plantations, draws in millions of tourists from India and around the world. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s iconic toy train, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, adds to its charm.

Furthermore, the presence of Siliguri, a vital city and a gateway to North-East India, within the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, amplifies its significance. Siliguri serves as an essential transit point for travelers and goods entering and exiting the North-Eastern states, essentially making it the unofficial capital of North Bengal.

Another factor contributing to Darjeeling’s importance is its Gorkha-dominated hill region. For more than a century, this region has been at the center of a long-standing demand for a separate state known as ‘Gorkhaland.’ This issue has political, social, and cultural ramifications and has captured significant attention and discussions in the Indian political landscape.

From a geographical standpoint, Darjeeling’s location in the Eastern Himalayas holds strategic importance not only for West Bengal but also for the entirety of India. It shares borders with Nepal’s easternmost province to the west, Bhutan to the east, the Indian state of Sikkim to the north, and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region to the far north. Additionally, Bangladesh lies to the south and southeast of the Darjeeling district, making it a crucial point of connection with neighboring countries.

Two Districts and More

Typically, a district is represented by one Lok Sabha seat, or in the case of larger districts, it may have two such seats. However, it is quite exceptional that, in the present-day scenario, the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency is unique in that it encompasses territory from two distinct districts and an assembly constituency from a third district. Specifically, it comprises the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts, along with the Chopra assembly constituency from North Dinajpur district.

Notably, on February 14, 2017, the division of Darjeeling district resulted in the creation of Kalimpong as the 21st district of West Bengal. Within the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, there are two assembly constituencies situated in the hilly regions, namely Darjeeling and Kurseong, and three assembly constituencies located in the plains within the same district: Siliguri, Matigara-Naxalbari, and Phansidewa. Additionally, Kalimpong, which is the sole assembly constituency in the newly formed Kalimpong district, is also an integral part of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency.

The population and size of these areas further accentuate the unique nature of this constituency. Darjeeling district, covering an expansive area of 3149 square kilometers, is home to a population of 18,46,823, whereas Kalimpong district, which spans 1075.92 square kilometers, has a population of 2,51,642.

Strange Political Equation

The political landscape in Darjeeling district and the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency has taken a rather unusual turn. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) enjoyed a series of electoral victories, securing the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in consecutive elections in 2009, 2014, and 2019. In the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, the BJP further demonstrated its strength by winning all five assembly seats in Darjeeling district.

However, the dynamics shifted when the BJP faced challenges in Kalimpong, the sole assembly seat in the newly formed Kalimpong district, which falls under the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency. A candidate from the Binay Tamang faction’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM-2), Ruden Sada Lepcha, emerged victorious in that seat. Subsequently, he joined Anit Thapa’s Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM), which is supported by West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress.

In both the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, the BJP’s success extended throughout the Darjeeling district, with no significant inroads made by the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress or the regional hill parties. However, this momentum came to a halt in the subsequent year.

The BJP faced setbacks in the 2022 Siliguri Municipal Corporation elections and the Siliguri Panchayat Elections, with the Trinamool Congress securing victories in both, marking a historic occurrence. Moreover, the BJP’s fortunes did not shine in the 2022 Darjeeling Municipality elections and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) elections in the Darjeeling hill region. A new party, Ajay Edward’s ‘Hamro Party,’ emerged victorious in the Darjeeling Municipality, while Anit Thapa’s BGPM, supported by the Trinamool Congress, gained control over the GTA. Subsequently, BGPM also took over the Darjeeling Municipality.

In the West Bengal Panchayat elections held in July 2023, the BJP suffered a resounding defeat across North Bengal, despite forming a grand alliance with several parties. This trend extended to the Darjeeling hill region.

Additionally, in the by-election held in September 2023 for the Dhupguri assembly seat in Jalpaiguri district, which neighbors Darjeeling and Kalimpong, the seat shifted from the BJP to the Trinamool Congress.

Considering these election results, it is safe to say that the BJP may face challenges in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections in North Bengal and its Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat.

Rebellion Within

Kurseong’s BJP MLA Vishnu Prasad Sharma, also known as BP Bajgain, has openly voiced his dissent against the current BJP MP from Darjeeling, Raju Bisht. He characterizes MP Raju Bisht as an ‘outsider’ and accuses him of failing to address the concerns of the Gorkha communities in the hills, Terai, and Dooars. Bajgain goes further to assert that relying on deceit is not a sustainable foundation.

Bajgain emphasizes,

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“It will be deemed that we are built on a bed of falsehood unless we fulfill the two primary promises made to the mountain communities: the recognition of the 11 tribes and a lasting political solution for the hills, Terai, and Dooars.”

In clear terms, BJP MLA B. P. Bajgain states,

“The BJP’s setbacks can only be rectified when we can ‘deliver’ on our commitments. Let’s honor the pledges we made, ideally before the 2024 elections, or else we will encounter significant challenges.”

He underscores the two crucial promises made by the BJP to the hill residents: firstly, the recognition of the 11 Gorkha tribes, and secondly, a permanent political resolution for the hills, Terai, and Dooars.

However, the BJP faces a predicament because if it takes even the slightest step towards supporting the creation of a separate Gorkhaland state to win the Gorkha-dominated Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, its standing in the remaining 41 Bengali-dominated Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal may become precarious. This is why the BJP champions Gorkhaland in Darjeeling but remains silent on the issue elsewhere in West Bengal.

B. P. Bajgain also reveals,

“When I declared in the assembly that people elected me solely for Gorkhaland, it sent shockwaves through my party, registering at around a magnitude of 4 on the Richter scale. Now, I am creating seismic shifts of 7-8 Richter scale.”

It is worth noting that on August 6, he held a demonstration in support of the separate state of Gorkhaland within the West Bengal Assembly complex. He points out that Gorkhas supported the BJP, granting it victory three consecutive times in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, for a 15-year tenure. However, the BJP has not addressed the concerns of the Gorkhas. Even during the monsoon session, there was no progress. With only a few months remaining until the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and just one winter session of Parliament ahead, Bajgain stresses the urgency of fulfilling these promises before the 2024 elections; otherwise, the BJP may face significant challenges.

Discord Inside BJP

There is a noticeable internal strife within the organizational structure of the BJP. Around 50 officials from various committees across different units of the BJP in the Darjeeling hill region of Darjeeling district and in the Siliguri plain area have tendered their resignations. Even Durga Murmu, the BJP MLA representing the Phansidewa assembly constituency in Darjeeling district and Siliguri division, has stepped down from his role as the general secretary of the BJP’s Siliguri district committee.

This wave of resignations began on August 6, 2023, following the removal of Anandmoy Barman, the MLA for Matigara-Naxalbari, from his position as President of the BJP’s Siliguri Organization District Committee. He was succeeded by Arun Mandal, a local leader of BJP’s Kisan Morcha, and this leadership transition triggered a series of resignations by party leaders and workers. Simultaneously, factionalism within the party has reached its zenith.

Presently, the BJP organization in Siliguri, often considered the unofficial capital of North Bengal, is divided into two factions, with Siliguri MLA Shankar Ghosh and the neighboring Matigara-Naxalbari MLA Anandmoy Barman leading these respective groups. This factionalism is prevalent at every level, from the upper echelons of leadership down to the grassroots. Various factions have formed based on factors such as historical ties to the BJP, recent affiliations, ideological alignment, and newcomers to the party.

A Friend is Friend no More

Bimal Gurung, the president of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM-1), a strong ally of the BJP who had ensured the BJP’s victory in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat for three consecutive terms, has severed ties with the party. He recently made his way to Delhi to express his dissent against the BJP and the Central Government. Bimal Gurung has unequivocally conveyed that the circumstances of 2009, 2014, and 2019 are no longer relevant. He insists that it is now imperative for the Central Government to make a decisive decision or for them to find a resolution independently.

Same Issue in Every Election

Regardless of the electoral outcomes in the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, particularly in its hilly region, one enduring issue prevails: the ‘identity issue’ of the Gorkhas. This issue centers around the demand for a separate state, ‘Gorkhaland,’ and its political significance is so profound that it overshadows the priorities of other political parties in the Darjeeling hills.

From the time of India’s independence until the early 1980s, the region was primarily under the influence of the Congress and later the CPI(M). However, a transformation occurred in the 1980s when Subhash Ghising initiated the Gorkhaland movement, founding the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) to advocate for a separate state, Gorkhaland. This movement was born out of the Gorkhas’ quest for their distinct identity in the Darjeeling hill region. Consequently, the endeavors of non-hill political parties were thwarted.

In the past decade, a single hill party, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, held sway over the Darjeeling hills. This party was established in 2007 by Bimal Gurung, formerly Subhash Ghising’s close associate, after parting ways with him.

Electoral History

Since the Gorkhaland movement of 1980-82 till 2007, with the blessings of Subhash Ghisingh and the help of his GNLF, parties like Congress and CPI(M) kept on contesting the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat. Then, when Bimal Gurung emerged as the new power of Darjeeling hills by forming Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the year 2007, his coinage lasted for a whole decade i.e. till 2017 and during that time he established the roots of BJP there.

But, due to unusual political circumstances, in 2017, Bimal Gurung had to go underground along with his shadow partner Roshan Giri. He had to incur the wrath of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government. There were more than a hundred cases against him including treason. Meanwhile, one of his close associates, Binay Tamang, took control of GJM. GJM divided into two factions.

After receiving blessings from the ruling party of West Bengal state, Trinamool Congress and the state government, Binay Tamang also occupied the chair of Bimal Gurung’s Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) Chief. Everything was going well but with the threat of 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections, matters became complicated.

Internally, Bimal Gurung had a visible but invisible agreement with West Bengal state and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. He received her blessings. He returned to public life in October 2020. Many cases against him were also dropped. Bimal Gurung joined Mamata Banerjee. Whereas, from 2007 to 2020, he was continuously a staunch opponent of Mamata Banerjee and a staunch supporter of BJP. Now he says that BJP considered Gorkhas only as vote bank, only cheated and did nothing for Gorkhas.

However, despite being underground in 2019, he ensured BJP’s victory from Darjeeling in the Lok Sabha elections by giving audio, video talks and issuing letter after letter in support of BJP. But, in the West Bengal Assembly elections held in 2021, he openly opposed BJP and supported Trinamool Congress. Despite this, he could neither make his party win nor could he get any benefit to Trinamool Congress.

Change, the Only Constant

Bimal Gurung faced a series of setbacks, starting with his unsuccessful bid in the 2022 Darjeeling Municipality elections. Subsequently, Anit Thapa’s BGPM gained control in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) elections, further diminishing Gurung’s political influence. The Trinamool Congress, which had initially welcomed him into its ranks after he left the BJP, has also begun to downplay his role.

The leader of the rival faction of the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha, Binay Tamang, has remained relatively inactive. Presently, it is primarily Anit Thapa and his BGPM who hold sway in the Darjeeling hills, enjoying the support of the Trinamool Congress. In contrast, when it comes to the BJP, the GNLF, led by Subhash Ghising’s son Man Ghising, is the only hill party currently aligned with the BJP. Other hill-based parties have distanced themselves from the BJP and openly voiced their opposition to it.

Who Won Darjeeling When?

The Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency was established in 1957 during the second Lok Sabha election, which followed India’s first Lok Sabha elections in 1952. Theodore Menon, a native of Kurseong in the Darjeeling hill region, was the inaugural Member of Parliament from this constituency.

He held the distinction of being the first Gorkha to serve as the General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee during the tenure of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Theodore Menon represented Darjeeling for two consecutive terms, initially winning as a candidate of the Gorkha League in 1957 and then securing victory on the Congress ticket in 1962.

Maitreyi Basu followed as the MP from Darjeeling from 1967 to 1971, becoming the first woman to hold this position and the first non-Gorkha representative. Subsequently, Ratanlal Brahmin of CPI(M) assumed office as the MP in 1971, succeeded by Krishna Bahadur Chhetri of Congress in 1977. Anand Pathak, also of CPI(M), was elected as the MP for two consecutive terms in 1980 and 1984, and he was a native of the region.

Journalist-turned-politician Inderjit from Delhi served as the MP of Darjeeling, first elected on the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) ticket of Subhash Ghisingh in 1989 and later on the Congress ticket in 1991. Notably, due to his instrumental role in the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) as an autonomous governance system for the Darjeeling hill region during the Gorkhaland movement led by Subhash Ghisingh in the 1980s, he secured two terms as the MP.

In the subsequent Lok Sabha elections, specifically in 1996, 1998, and 1999, Ratna Bahadur Rai, Anand Pathak, and SP Lepcha respectively represented Darjeeling as MPs, all on the ticket of the then-ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) in West Bengal. Each of these MPs were prominent local leaders in Darjeeling. Dawa Narbula, another local representative from Darjeeling, became the MP on the Congress ticket in 2004.

Following him, Jaswant Singh in 2009, SS Ahluwalia in 2014, and Raju Bisht in 2019 were all elected as MPs from Darjeeling on the BJP ticket.

Situation in 2024

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are just a few months away, the question of who will represent Darjeeling as the MP in this election becomes paramount. According to political analysts, the candidacy this time around may revolve around the theme of ‘son of the land’ versus ‘outsider.’ This is evident in the slogans raised by BJP MLA BP Bajgain from Kurseong in the Darjeeling hill region, who has repeatedly emphasised the ‘Bahari-Bahari’ aspect in relation to Darjeeling MP Raju Bisht, who is from the same party, the BJP.

Furthermore, all other political parties in the Darjeeling hill region have also begun echoing the narrative of Bhumiputra (son of the soil). Recognizing this sentiment, the ruling BJP at the Center is potentially considering Man Ghising, the son of the late Subhash Ghising and the current leader of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).

On the flip side, the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal is rallying behind Anit Thapa, the influential leader in the hills, and his Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha. As for the newly formed “India” alliance of opposition parties against the ruling BJP at the Center, it appears to have made limited inroads in North Bengal and the Darjeeling region. Regarding other political parties, their influence in the Darjeeling hill region is currently marginal.

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Tanzil Asif is a multimedia journalist-cum-entrepreneur. He is the founder and the CEO of Main Media. He occasionally writes stories from Seemanchal for other publications as well. Hence, he has bylines in The Wire, The Quint, Outlook Magazine, Two Circles, the Milli Gazette etc. Tanzil is one of six Indian journalists selected by YouTube in 2021 for its Creator Program for Independent Journalists. He is also a Josh Talks speaker, an Engineer and a part-time poet.

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