It was a clear day and the Kanchenjunga was at its best under the cobalt blue sky. As the temperature dipped to 16 degrees centigrade on evening, people in the colder climes of Darjeeling cuddled up in food stalls and homes, waiting for their Thukpa (a noodle soup) while some were satisfied with their traditional Churpi (Yak milk cheese consumed in the Himalayan regions) and Tongba (a millet-based alcoholic beverage).
Miles away in Kolkata, as the clock ticked to 6.30pm, the political temperatures had risen considerably with Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung announcing his support for Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee for next year's West Bengal assembly polls.
Absconding for three years, Bimal’s announcement to support Mamata and his decision to break ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sent ripples across the hills as people parked themselves in front of television sets to understand the surprise sprung by their ‘Daju’ Bimal.
Gurung, on the run since 2017 following an agitation for statehood in Darjeeling, said, “We supported the BJP for 12 years but nothing happened to our demand despite their assurances of fulfilling our promise. Today, I would like to announce that I am going to support Mamata Banerjee in the upcoming 2021 assembly polls. I am not supporting the NDA anymore. We felt that the BJP never fulfilled our demand but Mamata Banerjee always fulfilled whatever she committed to. We came to know of the differences between the Centre and the state. In the 2021 assembly polls, I would like to give a strong message to the BJP. No one, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Amit Shah, fulfilled the promise. Our demand for a permanent political solution will remain and in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls we will support Mamata Banerjee."
Over the years, the ‘vulnerable’ political vacuum in North Bengal over various tribal issues including the Gorkhaland demand was exploited by all the political parties and since 2009 the BJP has grown exponentially in this region with the support of the tribals, dalits and Gorkhas.
Out of the 54 assembly seats in North Bengal (there are 294 assembly seats in the state), Bimal Gurung’s support to the BJP since 2009 was a big factor in at least 17 assembly seats, as well as eight Lok Sabha seats.
Bimal breaking ties with the BJP certainly comes as big relief for Mamata Banerjee as over the years the TMC has lost ground in the region.
Struggling with internal feud between the old guard and young Turks, and with Bimal’s support to the BJP, Mamata had on many occasions warned party leaders that they must iron out the rift. In a recent videoconference with TMC leaders, she had expressed her helplessness in going for a major reshuffle by bringing in new faces to strengthen the party ahead of the state polls.
The 2021 assembly polls are crucial for Mamata, not just to retain power in Bengal, but also because it will decide her party's future in national politics and the BJP’s game plan ahead in the state.
There is a general feeling that the Gorkhas are only a big factor in three assembly seats: Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. However, ground realities suggest that this is incorrect as the Gorkhas have significant presence in at least 15-17 assembly seats, including Madarihat and Kalchini in Alipurduar district, Matigara-Naxalbari and Phansidewa in Darjeeling, and Nagrakata in Jalpaiguri, apart from others.
In the 15-17 assembly seats in North Bengal, the Gorkha vote share can be a decisive factor, and Bimal Gurung is expected to have a big say here. “In these assembly seats, we are strong enough to decide the fate of any political party in the state,” Gurung's associate Roshan Giri said.
In the 2016 assembly polls, the TMC won 23 seats (out of the 54 here), while the BJP won two seats (Madarihat in Alipurduar district and Baishnabnagar in Malda). The GJM, then in alliance with the BJP, won three seats, while the rest of the 26 seats were won by the Congress and the CPI(M) combined.
Three years later, due to the Bimal Gurung factor, out of the eight Lok Sabha seats of Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Raiganj, Balurghat, North Malda and South Malda in North Bengal, Mamata failed to win a single one. Seven out of the eight went to the BJP, while Malda South was secured by late Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s brother Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury of the Congress, popularly known as ‘Dalu da’.
In Malda North, the BJP’s Khagen Murmu defeated MP Mausam Noor (former Congress lawmaker but fought the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on a TMC ticket), while in Malda South, ‘Dalu da’ defeated the BJP’s Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury. The TMC’s Md Moazzem Hossain stood third with a 27.47 vote share.
In the rest of the seats, the BJP’s Nisith Pramanik, John Barla, Jayanta Kumar Ray, Raju Singh Bisht, Deboshree Chaudhary and Sukanta Majumdar sent shockwaves through the TMC camp.
Now with Bimal Gurung supporting Mamata, there is a possibility that the TMC will better its previous assembly poll results. Apart from the Gorkhas, with a more than 30 per cent vote share, Rajbonshis are also a key factor for any political party in North Bengal. However, this time there are strong possibilities of a division in Rajbonshi votes due to the Congress-Left alliance. This means any significant increase in the Congress-Left vote share would spell trouble for the BJP in North Bengal.
However, Cooch Behar BJP MP Nisith Pramanik says he is confident of winning 52 seats out of 54. The ground reality though is certainly going to change after GJM’s support to Mamata.
Speaking to the News18, senior CPI (M) leader Ashok Bhattacharya said, “We are not surprised with the development (referring to Bimal Gurung). We have seen many Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) members join the TMC in the past. In Jangalmahal, they have Chhattradhar Mahato and we all know about his background. We want our chief minister Mamata Banerjee to explain what deal she had with Bimal Gurung. It should not be hidden. Did she agree on GJM’s Gorkhaland demand and if not then why did GJM decide to support Mamata Banerjee? These are the unanswered questions which need to be clarified by the TMC chief. We condemned the alliance of TMC and GJM as we feel that they are planning something dangerous in the Hills.”
In the 2016 Bengal assembly polls, the BJP’s vote share was 10.2 per cent and in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections it went up to 40.3 per cent. The massive increase was because of Hindus gravitating towards the BJP. In the past three years, the party has managed to cultivate religion-driven politics in Bengal.
Statistics show that from the 2011 assembly polls to the 2016 ones, the Left Front has lost its vote share by 9.88 per cent, and from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to the 2019 ones, its vote share further plummeted to nearly 16 per cent.
However, the Congress vote share from the 2011 to 2016 assembly polls increased from 8.91 per cent to 12.3 per cent, but it fell drastically in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls (9.6 per cent) and in the 2019 general elections the party managed to secure only 5 per cent votes.
The significance of North Bengal for both the BJP and TMC can be gauged from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee decided to blow the Lok Sabha poll bugle on the same day from here on April 3, 2019. Then, Modi addressed two back-to-back rallies in Siliguri near Jalpaiguri Railway Station. Same day, Banerjee – one of vocal critics of PM Modi government –addressed a public meet in Dinhata in Cooch Behar (where the first phase of polling was held on April 11, 2019).
In March 2020, Mamata deliberately picked Malda in North Bengal for her mega interactive session with more than 80,000 party workers. The reason was that Malda (both South and North has a nearly 50 per cent Muslim population. The Trinamool has never won any seats in the region till date, except that after the 2016 assembly polls, four MLAs shifted to the party, including one independent, one from the CPI (M) and two from the Congress.
Mamata knows that North Bengal can take the TMC’s tally up or down significantly, just like it has turned around the BJP's fortunes.