Monday, April 27, 2009

Election 2009: The Mood in West Bengal

CPM's Red Fortress Under Siege!
I have just returned to Delhi after travelling through West Bengal where I spent 10 days trying to get a sense of which way the political wind is blowing. Here are some reports that I filed for The Pioneer.

A wall painting in Howrah captures the mood in West Bengal
FRONT PAGE | Sunday, April 26, 2009 |

Left could go down to 22 seats in Bengal

Muslims, one in 3 voters, desert CPM

Kanchan Gupta | Kolkata

As people in West Bengal prepare to vote on April 30 in the first of three rounds of polling for the 15th Lok Sabha, the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front faces what could turn out to be its worst-ever electoral performance.

According to conservative estimates cutting across party lines, the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance could notch up an impressive tally of 14 to 17 of the 42 seats in the State. If the popular mood prevailing from north to south Bengal is any indication, the Opposition could end up winning anything between 18 and 20 seats.

Whatever the final tally, there is mounting apprehension at Alimuddin Street, where the CPI(M)’s headquarters is located, that the Marxists will suffer a setback worse than that of 1984 when the Congress won 16 seats in the election that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

In that election, the Left suffered reverses in urban areas. This time, the losses are stacking up in rural constituencies. The projected losses are largely concentrated in south Bengal where the Trinamool Congress is running an aggressive campaign.

Little over a fortnight ago, the CPI(M)’s election strategists were horrified to find that the Left Front’s 2004 tally of 35 seats was at risk of being whittled down to 20 to 22 seats.

All hands were called to deck and a massive effort was launched to paper over differences within the CPI(M) and between the party and its allies in the Left Front. Simultaneously, zonal and local committees were asked to reach out to disgruntled party supporters who were toying with the idea of voting against the Left. Third, the counter-attack on the Trinamool Congress was sharpened, focusing on Mamata Banerjee's inability to come up with a positive agenda.

These steps appear to have had some impact in preventing the Left’s electoral fortunes from declining further. What has helped the CPI(M) recover some lost ground is the Trinamool’s over-emphasis on running a vitriolic campaign which includes large posters and banners that are graphically illustrated with gory visuals of charred bodies, allegedly victims of Marxist violence.

Two visuals that have been used repeatedly are those of Tapashi Mullick, who was raped and killed in Singur. The first visual shows an innocent faced teenaged girl. The second shows her half-burnt body. In a variation of this theme, some posters show four men pinning down Tapashi Mullick while a fifth man rapes her.

Such graphic depiction of violence has begun to put off people. Sensing the disquiet over the Opposition’s campaign, the CPI(M) has used all available space to publicise its ‘development agenda’ and how Mamata Banerjee is preventing the State from moving ahead. “We have a positive agenda. She is running a negative campaign,” says CPI(M) State secretary Biman Bose.

But nothing that the CPI(M) does or says at this stage will stop this poll from turning out to be the tipping point that has eluded the Opposition in West Bengal for three decades.

The push that will enable Banerjee to cross the hump which stands between victory and defeat will be provided by Bengal’s Muslims who are said to comprise 26% of the electorate but in reality could account for one in every three voters. Banerjee claims (since it suits her to do so) and most people believe (since they are

influenced by TV news) that Muslim alienation from the Marxists is on account of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s farmland-for-industry policy, which has been kept in limbo ever since the Singur disaster. But the real reason why Muslims have decided to disown the Marxists lies elsewhere.

Ironically, that reason is the revelation by the Sachar Committee, which was supported by the Left to spite the BJP, about how Muslims in West Bengal are far worse off than in any other State, including Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Confronted with this reality, Bengal’s Muslims have begun to question the wisdom of supporting the Left.

The man who took the Sachar Committee’s revelation to the Muslim masses is Siddiqullah Chowdhury of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. He has put up a dozen candidates in Muslim-dominated constituencies. But that could be a red herring, meant to divert attention as the community quietly consolidates behind Banerjee. And gives her the cutting edge she needs to defeat the CPI(M) in West Bengal.

FRONT PAGE | Friday, April 24, 2009 |

Biman says decision on Congress after results

Kanchan Gupta | Kolkata

The CPI(M) will take stock of the situation after the results are announced and accordingly decide whether to extend support to the Congress all over again. “At the moment we are focussed on winning as many seats as possible, along with our allies in the ‘Third Front’, so as to form a non-Congress, non-BJP Government at the Centre,” says Biman Bose, State secretary of the CPI(M) and chairman of the Left Front. The West Bengal party boss is also a member of the all-powerful Politburo.

“It is too early to talk about extending or not extending support to the Congress. Let us wait for the results. All the predictions that are being made (about the Left losing heavily) will not tally with the results,” Bose said in an exclusive interview to The Pioneer at the party headquarters on Alimuddin Street here, taking time off from his hectic schedule.

Defying popular sentiment which is palpably weighed against the Left, especially the CPI(M), more so in semi-urban and rural areas which were once considered ‘Red fortresses’, Bose says, “This is the impression created by a section of the media. There is an effort on to reduce Left seats by resorting to any and all means. Wait for the results. I don’t think the Left will lose many seats.” Implicit in the comment is the assessment that the Left will lose some seats.

He is dismissive about Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, who has launched an all-out offensive against the CPI(M) and, by entering into an electoral alliance with the Congress, hopes that this election will prove to be the tipping point that has eluded West Bengal’s divided Opposition for three decades. “She is like a frog in the well. She cannot look beyond West Bengal. This is a parliamentary election in which people are supposed to elect a Government at the Centre. But she is running a campaign for panchayat elections,” Bose says.

As an afterthought, he adds, “Have you seen her election manifesto? There’s not a word about governing the nation. Her election theme, ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’, which she has borrowed from the title of a jatra (Bengali folk theatre), shows how limited her vision is. For us, it is Bharat Mata, the whole country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Cachar to Kutch. We have an agenda for national governance. She has nothing positive to say.”

Asked about the Government’s blunders, especially its handling of the sensitive land-for-industry issue and the protests in Nandigram and Singur, Bose is prompt in his response. “Yes, there may have been mistakes. But anybody who tries to do something, tries to change things the way they are, makes mistakes. If we had just sat around and done nothing, there would have been no mistakes. Wherever the people feel we have erred, I have been asking them with folded hands to forgive us. It is in Bengal’s culture to forgive those who admit their mistakes.”

The Left Front Government, he says, will continue to persist with its industrialisation policy as “there can be no progress without industry”. Will it go easy after its experience at Nandigram and Singur? “No, not at all. Minus industry West Bengal’s economy cannot develop.” He goes on to explain how products worth Rs 25,000 crore are sold in rural West Bengal alone. “Only a small fraction of these are produced in the State. We have a huge domestic market which can sustain industry,” he says, confident that the Nano’s exit will not affect investment.

The one issue on which Bose does not speak with equal enthusiasm is the Muslim vote, which, at 30 per cent (and that is a conservative estimate), has sustained the CPI(M) in election after election since it first came to power in 1977. This time, the Muslim voters are backing Mamata Banerjee; the Jamiat-i-Ulama Hind’s entry into the electoral arena with a dozen candidates in Muslim-dominated constituencies has further made the Muslim voting pattern unpredictable and unsure for the Marxists.

“I can’t say just now which way the Muslims will vote. But they are rational people and can decide for themselves which party is a better bet. Nobody can doubt the secular credentials of the Left Front as a whole,” he says. But that’s an answer which underscores the sense of uncertainty that prevails in the Left today. For all its brave words, the CPI(M)’s leaders know that the ground beneath their feet is beginning to shift. This election could come as the rudest shock to the Marxists in the past three decades, ruder than the setback they suffered in 1984.

| Thursday, April 23, 2009 |

Colourful past may haunt Mamata’s Kabir

Kanchan Gupta | Kolkata

He is a guitar-swinging wannabe Bob Dylan who took the Bengali music scene by storm in the early-1990s. He is a self-confessed agnostic who scoffs at faith in god and thinks it is an invention to divert attention from the reality around us. He believes “marriage is another form of bondage … a besetting sin” which he has committed more than once, tying the knot, by his own count, with five women. His concept of liberation focuses on “liberating the body”. He is a Bengali Brahmin from a conservative family who embraced Islam to marry a Bangladeshi singer. And, pushing 60, he is a pot-bellied ‘revolutionary’ who dresses in faded jeans and T-shirts, sports a stubble and shaves his balding head.

Meet Kabir Suman, the Trinamool Congress candidate for the prestigious Jadavpur parliamentary constituency in Kolkata. We catch up with him while he is campaigning in the lanes of Bagha Jatin, riding an open jeep with another fitted with blinding halogen lamps following him. The theme of what he says, every time he stops to address a motley crowd in the dark — there’s a power outage, the sweltering heat is oppressive — is pegged to the Trinamool slogan plastered all over Kolkata: “Krishak merey Tata prem; shame, shame CPM” (Peasant killer, Tata-lover, CPM Shame! Shame!).

Kabir Suman — no, you can’t call him either Kabir or Suman — recounts the horrors of Nandigram where the CPI(M)-led Left Front Government unleashed a reign of terror after failing to acquire land for a special economic zone to be set up by the Salem Group. He reminds people about the “mass struggle” against the Tata small car factory at Singur. He mocks at Tata Motors for turning tail and fleeing West Bengal.

“We will chase out big industry. Do you remember the old Communist slogan which the CPI(M) has forgotten? No, you are too young to remember. Let me remind you. Tata-Birla'r kaalo haath bhengey daao, guriye daao. (Break and smash the black hand of Tata and Birla). The CPI(M) has discarded that slogan, but we have adopted it,” Kabir Suman says. His audience is truly ignorant: Nobody bothers to remind him that the slogan was “Congress’er kaalo haath bhengey daao, guriye daao”.

He doesn’t use the original version for good reason: He is supported by the Congress which has entered into an electoral alliance with the Trinamool Congress. Although it is doubtful whether Sonia Gandhi, whose beaming picture adorns Kabir Suman’s election posters, is aware of the ‘free-wheeling’ lifestyle, which some would call licentious, of this radio journalist-turned-Sandinista activist-turned Marxist bard-turned-Muslim-turned-Mamata fan-turned-Trinamool candidate. In between his various personality changes, Kabir Suman has been accused of physical abuse by his now-separated German wife Maria. He survived the charges; today, Kabir Suman is eloquent in his condemnation of “atrocities against women like Tapashi Mullick by CPM goons”.

Kabir Suman lived in Germany and the US between 1975 and 1989, working for German International Radio and Voice of America. He returned home to Kolkata, claiming he had had enough of the West’s ‘materialistic life’, and set up a one-man travelling band.

He sang ballads with an earthy appeal and his first album, Tomaakey Chaai (I Want You), was an instant hit. He would often appear at CPI(M) rallies and enthral the crowds with his songs about the ‘oppressed masses’ and the ‘struggling working class’. According to one of the early stories about him, he was a Naxalite who fled India in 1975 to escape the police. Kabir Suman never denied that version; now he says he was never a Naxalite, never had the time to dabble in such nonsense.

He would often travel to Bangladesh for concerts. During one such visit, he met Bangladeshi singer, Sabina Yasmin, quite unknown at the time. This time, he also ‘liberated’ himself from his Bengali Hindu Brahmin identity and converted to Islam. Thus was Suman Chattopadhyay reborn as Kabir Suman.

He says he is still married to her, although in a recent interview to a Kolkata daily he said, “I am a polygamous man. Maybe I am still searching for love.” Sabina Yasmin remains a Bangladeshi citizen. “He is a charlatan,” says CPI(M) activist Saibal Mukherjee, “He became a Muslim to marry Sabina Yasmin. But now he is going around saying he discarded his Hindu identity to protest against the murder of Graham Staines. Chhi!”

Jadavpur is considered a high profile constituency. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee represents the Jadavpur Assembly segment. In 1984, Mamata Banerjee had defeated Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur on a Congress ticket, delivering a stunning blow to the CPI(M) and emerging as a leader in State politics. Since then, this constituency has swung between the CPI(M) and Trinamool Congress. Sujan Chakraborty of the CPI(M) wrested it from the Trinamool Congress in 2004; he is the party’s candidate this time too.

Mamata Banerjee obviously hopes to cash in on Kabir Suman’s ‘Muslim identity’ with the large number of Muslim voters in the constituency who could hold the key to victory in a stiff contest. After delimitation, Muslims comprise nearly 20 per cent of the voters, concentrated in Assembly segments like Bhangar and Sonarpur. The CPI(M)’s narrow lead in the 2006 Assembly election in the outlying Assembly constituencies, further depleted in last year’s panchayat polls, could work to its disadvantage. The Muslim consolidation in support of Mamata Banerjee post-Nandigram is further cause of worry in the Marxist camp.

Ironically, the CPI(M) has, in the past, used Kabir Suman to play the Muslim card. In 2002, he was the CPI(M)’s mascot at protest meetings against the Gujarat riots. The party now hopes that the conservative, Hindu middle class voters of the urban areas of Jadavpur, most of them refugees from East Pakistan and their descendents, will vote against Kabir Suman for two reasons: He has “converted to Islam to marry a Muslim”, and has a “lifestyle that would shock madhyabitta Bengalis”. A whispering campaign is on about the various scandals involving Kabir Suman.

Near Thakur Baari, Kabir Suman stops to address a cluster of curious onlookers and holds forth on why the people should reject the CPI(M) and elect him. And then brazenly adds, “I know they are spreading scandalous stories about me and my dharmantaran. But I don’t care. In Hollywood, agencies are paid by stars to spread such stories which makes them more famous. Similarly, the CPI(M) is making me more famous.” Jeeyo! shouts a lungi-clad man carrying a Trinamool Congress flag. His friend puts his fingers in his mouth and lets go a piercing whistle, the sort that used to be heard from the front stalls at first day first shows before multiplexes became the rage.

EDIT PAGE Main Article
| Wednesday, April 22, 2009 |

Gurung dons his guru’s mantle

Kanchan Gupta

Darjeeling: There’s an air of quiet confidence about Mr Bimal Gurung, the president of Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha which is now spearheading the movement for a separate Gorkhaland comprising Darjeeling district and the Dooars region of West Bengal. He speaks softly, oozes humility and remembers the smallest of courtesies. If there’s anything that gives away his razor sharp mind which is constantly outguessing opponents and planning the next move on the chessboard of Gorkha politics after checkmating his erstwhile mentor Subash Ghising and chasing him out of the Darjeeling hills, it’s the Mephistophelean smile that lurks around his tightly pursed narrow lips.

It’s difficult to imagine that this nattily dressed man who, with as little as a snap of his fingers, can move mountains and men is a junior school dropout. During the mid-1980s, when Mr Ghising led a violent agitation to press his demand for a separate Gorkhaland — the hills literally burned for months as activists of the Gorkha National Liberation Front ran amok, indulging in arson and worse — Mr Gurung made a quiet entry into Gorkha politics as a trusted bodyguard of the now disgraced, discredited and disinherited leader. If Mr Gurung’s phenomenal rise and emergence as the sole spokesman of Darjeeling’s Gorkhas has stunned politicians and plebeians alike, it has left Mr Ghising, currently camping in the plains, stupefied.

After the August 22, 1988 peace accord which led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council that the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr Jyoti Basu, thought would serve to meet Gorkha aspirations and mollify those demanding a separate State, Mr Gurung steadily climbed the ladder of the GNLF hierarchy and came to be recognised as Mr Ghising’s most trusted lieutenant, his second-in-command. Mr Ghising was ruthless in putting down potential challengers and those who dared question his decisions, but he was more than indulgent towards Mr Gurung. The protégé responded in equal measure; for him, the master could do no wrong.

So, when the relationship turned bitter, virtually overnight, everybody was taken by surprise. This happened after Mr Ghising agreed to accept Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling after a series of meetings with representatives of the West Bengal Government and the Union Government from which he excluded his senior party colleagues. Surprisingly, even Mr Gurung was asked to sit outside the room while Mr Ghising confabulated inside. It was after one such meeting that Mr Gurung just walked out of the GNLF and severed all ties with Mr Ghising: The protégé became the master’s foe and swore vengeance.

There’s no dearth of apocryphal stories about why Mr Gurung turned against his guru at a time when he was battling to retain his absolute control over the hills. The promised special status under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution was to serve as a placebo for those who had begun to complain about how nothing had changed in the two decades when Darjeeling’s affairs were handled by the DGHC, headed by Mr Ghising, first as an elected representative of the people and then on extended tenure by way of a political favour done by West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

But unfettered power and unrestricted access to public funds had dulled Mr Ghising’s amazingly sharp and crafty mind. For the first time he under-estimated the anger of those who once adored him and over-estimated his ability to ride the storm that followed his decision to opt for special status for Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Mr Ghising suddenly found himself in an awful minority, with his senior colleagues, led by Mr Gurung, deserting him when he needed them the most.

After listening to several of the apocryphal stories about the breach between Mr Ghising and Mr Gurung, two possible reasons emerge for the separation that led to the birth of the GJMM — or Gojamumo, as it is called in the hills — in end-2007. First, non-tribals among Gorkhas, of whom there are many, were appalled by the idea of tribals becoming all powerful and the main beneficiaries in a political dispensation under the Sixth Schedule which is essentially meant to provide administrative autonomy and special privileges to tribal areas. Second, Mr Ghising had begun to marginalise Mr Gurung, fearing he was becoming a parallel power centre; he would increasingly keep him out of the loop, as he did during the talks on granting special status to Darjeeling under the Sixth Schedule.

An elderly couple in Darjeeling, who has spent the past six decades in the hills and are a treasure trove of fascinating stories that date back to the dying days of the British Raj over dinner that stretches late into the night at their dollhouse-like cottage precariously perched on the slope of a hill that overlooks Kanchenjungha, offer a third reason. Mr Ghising had begun to interfere with the religious practices, rites and rituals, of the Gorkhas, insisting that Hindus, Buddhists and Christians should give up their individual faith and embrace tribal animism. The Gorkhas, deeply religious, irrespective of their faith, were mightily offended. Among those repulsed by this forced repudiation of faith was Mr Gurung.

Whatever the real reason, Mr Gurung, upset, slighted or enraged, seized the opportunity to stage a coup and dislodge Mr Ghising at a time when his ratings had hit rock bottom, accusing him of striking deals on the sly and compromising the interests of Darjeeling. He floated his own organisation, and posited the GJMM as the real champion of the Gorkhas’ demand for separate statehood.

Mr Gurung began by organising minor protest meetings and small rallies; gradually, he co-opted the cadre of the GNLF who were tantalised by his dramatic assertions of securing a separate State for Gorkhas at any cost. His incipient insurrection soon turned into a tidal wave of popular anger that washed away all vestiges of the GNLF and Mr Ghising’s hugely corrupt and callous administration that had increasingly come to rely upon thugs to maintain its stranglehold over the region and its people.

Most of Mr Ghising’s supporters, including his party’s MLAs and corporators, have switched allegiance to Mr Gurung. Those who refused to do so have been hounded out of their home and hearth and banished from the hills. Some have fled to Nepal; others have sought shelter in Siliguri. Mr Gurung does not believe in political plurality and dissent, but since he claims to be a ‘Gandhibaadi’, he lets his militia of vigilantes do the needful with knuckle-dusters.

Between last spring and this summer, Mr Gurung and his GJMM have replaced Mr Ghising and his GNLF. The dying embers of the Gorkhaland agitation have been stoked back to a roaring fire. Can Mr Jaswant Singh, if elected on a BJP ticket with GJMM support from Darjeeling parliamentary constituency, ensure it does not turn into an all-consuming blaze in the hills and plains of West Bengal?

FRONT PAGE | Tuesday, April 21, 2009 |

‘Gorkhaland’ pits plains against hills

Kanchan Gupta | Darjeeling / Siliguri

The revived demand for Gorkhaland, which is the sole election issue in Darjeeling district and the Dooars region of West Bengal, has polarised voters as never before. Gorkhas and Bengalis stand divided along ethnic lines, determined not to let the other score a victory.

Gorkhas, who form the overwhelming majority in the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong of the Darjeeling parliamentary constituency and have a sizeable presence in the foothills, view this election as a crucial step towards realising their dream of a separate State. The Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha, which is really a reincarnation of the now-discredited Gorkha National Liberation Front, and whose leader Bimal Gurung claims to be the sole spokesman of the ‘hills people’, is backing BJP candidate Jaswant Singh.

With the BJP promising to “sympathetically consider the long-standing demand” of the Gorkhas, the GJMM believes it can secure Gorkhaland by roping in a national party to back its cause. Jaswant Singh has strengthened this expectation by voicing enthusiastic, often emotional, support for a separate Gorkha State in his election rallies. Within a fortnight he has gained amazing popularity in the three Assembly segments in the hills despite being, as Congress candidate Dawa Narbula describes him, an “outsider”.

But in the plains it is a different story. The Bengalis of Siliguri and the three other Assembly segments are equally determined to demonstrate that the demand for Gorkhaland does not have majority support and cannot be conceded. With nearly 55 per cent of the votes in the plains, they believe they can defeat the BJP-GJMM alliance and nip, what a Bengali lawyer in Siliguri describes as “a grand conspiracy against West Bengal hatched by anti-Bengali politicians” in the bud.

The BJP had substantial support among the plains Bengalis, especially those who came as refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and are now alarmed by the phenomenal rise in the population of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. “I voted for the BJP in 2004,” says Dileep, while negotiating a hairpin bend on the road to Kalimpong from Siliguri. “So did most people in my colony.” This explains why the BJP candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, despite being a Gorkha from Darjeeling, polled nearly 10 per cent of the total votes, almost entirely in the plains.

Jaswant Singh’s strategists believe this vote-share will remain with the BJP and give him a cutting edge over his Congress and CPI(M) rivals. But it is unlikely Dileep and others who voted for the BJP in 2004 will vote for the party on April 30. “I would like to vote for the BJP. But since the party has decided to support Gorkhaland, I won’t vote for it,” says Dileep. Whom will he vote for? “May be the Congress. Dawa Narbula is from the hills, but he doesn’t talk of Gorkhaland.”

“The BJP claims it stands for unity. And see what’s happening here! The BJP is backing those who want to partition Bengal again. The Gorkhas refer to us as Madhesis, they abuse us, call us jatha. Why should we vote for the BJP which now stands for Gorkhaland?” says a young tea taster in Siliguri. “It’s a ‘separatist’ movement aimed at a third partition of Bengal. How can you divide West Bengal yet again? What will remain of this State? Don’t Bengalis matter? Are settlers more important than the people of West Bengal?” These questions of his find a resonance with most Bengalis in the plains and beyond.

What has lent credence to the anti-Gorkhaland feelings which are running high in the plains is the ‘ban’ imposed by the GJMM on the Congress and CPI(M) candidates from campaigning in the hills. Both Dawa Narbula and Jibesh Sarkar, who is the CPI(M) candidate, have been forced to restrict their campaigning to the plains and some areas of the foothills with mixed populations. This has only added to their vitriol against the GJMM and the BJP.

Sarkar doesn’t miss any opportunity to berate the BJP as an “opportunist party” out to “disrupt the unity of West Bengal”. At every election meeting, he darkly hints at the “frightening consequences” if the GJMM-BJP win this election. “We (the CPI-M) stand for unity and peace,” he tells the voters.

Narbula is more forthright in his attack. He calls Jaswant Singh an “outsider” who “will do nothing for Darjeeling”. And after a pause adds, “I am the only hill man in the contest.” This doesn’t quite upset the voters in the plains because Narbula, the sitting MP, has been steadfast in his opposition to Gorkhaland. He doesn’t say so, but skirts the issue entirely at his public meetings.

So, which way will the vote go on April 30? The voters of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong will, without doubt, vote for the BJP and Jaswant Singh can count on a huge lead in these three Assembly segments. But in the plains, the CPI(M) has a clear edge in all four Assembly segments. This by itself is unlikely to add up to a victory for Sarkar. A split in the anti-Gorkhaland vote between the Congress and the CPI(M) will see the BJP through.

Unless there is a silent consolidation in support of either Narbula or Sarkar. Subash Ghising, the disgraced Gorkha National Liberation Front chief who has been chased out of the hills by the GJMM and is camping in Siliguri, has asked his followers to boycott the election. Many feel this is a ruse; that he will quietly tell his supporters to vote for the Congress. Narbula is also confident of GNLF support, or what remains of it, since he won in 2004 with Ghising’s backing.

Narbula has a further advantage. He is contesting on a Congress ticket but has the support of the Trinamool Congress which can, if it wishes, transfer its vote to him. The newly-emergent anti-CPI(M) vote may also go his way. The substantial tribal vote remains an unknown factor.

But the fact remains that whichever way the vote goes the ethnic polarisation will only get stronger. If Jaswant Singh loses, the GJMM will up its ante and launch a fresh round of agitation. If he wins, the plains will be up in arms. Either way, trouble lies ahead for both victor and vanquished.

FRONT PAGE | Monday, April 20, 2009 |

Jaswant looks set for massive victory

Kanchan Gupta | Kalimpong

With a Gorkha cap that has an exquisitely carved miniature khukri pinned to it worn rakishly, a Gorkha scarf jauntily tied around his waist and a soldier’s demeanour that sits easily on him, Jaswant Singh takes the podium as the huge crowd gathered at Kalimpong’s Mela Ground breaks into applause. It is late afternoon and the joint BJP-Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM) election rally began mid-morning; the April sun is unusually strong and the humidity exceptionally high. But the people, who have trekked from distant places to hear the latest protagonist of Gorkhaland, have been waiting patiently for this moment.

Those who have spoken before Jaswant Singh have explained at great length why the GJMM has entered into an alliance with the BJP (the voice of the ignored Gorkha will now be heard at the national level) and how the people of Darjeeling parliamentary constituency are lucky to have Jaswant Singh, a “stalwart leader who ranks after Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani”, as their representative in the Lok Sabha (the result of the April 30 poll is a foregone conclusion in the hills). It is now the ‘stalwart’ leader’s turn to endorse all that they have said.

Jaswant Singh does not let down either the GJMM’s top leaders on the dais or the eager-faced audience in the maidan. “My heart aches when I see the neglect of the Gorkhas,” he says, “I am shocked by your humiliation.” A hush descends on the jam-packed sprawling Mela Ground in the heart of Kalimpong town. He launches into a tirade against the CPI(M) and the Congress; describes the latter as the “bandhua mazdoor” of the Left parties. “Therefore, I am not surprised that neither the CPI(M) nor the Congress has done anything to make Gorkhaland a reality. The BJP will do what they have not done,” he adds with a flourish.

There’s loud clapping. Someone whistles and women, wearing saris with an identical ‘Gorkha’ pattern, lustily cheer their new patron. An old woman who wants to bless Jaswant Singh is ushered on to the dais by a teenaged boy in a body-hugging blue-and-yellow tracksuit with ‘Gorkhaland’ emblazoned on it. There are three alphabets printed just below that: ‘GLP’. They stand for ‘Gorkhaland Police’.

The teenaged boy is a member of the ‘police force’ that has been set up by Bimal Gurung, who heads the GJMM, with its own intelligence wing and cadre trained in combat tactics. The West Bengal Police has deployed its own armed men for the rally, but they are standing in a corner — asked by the GJMM to stay away from the dais and the audience — while ‘GLP’ cadre with inscrutable faces take care of security. Bimal Gurung may not have a State as yet, but he has his own police force.

“Gorkhas have been protecting India since ages. Gorkha soldiers have been laying down their lives for this country. If we can trust them with our protection, why can’t we trust them with a State of their own? It is my destiny to correct this grave injustice that has been done to you. This is why god has picked me up from the desert of Rajasthan and placed me in the laps of the Himalayas. From now on, this is my karmabhoomi.” By now the crowd is delirious. Here was a man from the plains, from distant Rajasthan no less, speaking their language, commiserating with their sorrows, echoing their sentiments. They couldn’t have asked for anything more.

By the time the rally gets over, it's almost early evening. People begin their long trek back home as dusk descends in the hills. Their decision has been made; all that remains is casting their vote on the election day. A tired, though beaming Jaswant Singh returns to the hotel for a short break. There’s a second meeting scheduled later in the evening at Town Hall where Kalimpong’s intelligentsia will gather to hear him speak. Bimal Gurung wears a satisfied smile — his political gambit has not been in vain.

Nobody doubts that Jaswant Singh will sweep the three hill sub-divisions of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong of Darjeeling constituency. The GJMM is riding an amazing popularity wave and the BJP is riding the crest of that wave. The other two contenders, Dawa Narbullah of the Congress who won this seat in 2004 with a 45 per cent share of the vote, and Jibesh Sarkar of the CPI(M) have not yet forayed into the hills. Even if they wanted to, they would have been prevented from travelling beyond Darjeeling More in the plains. Such is the overwhelming anger and hostility of the people towards both parties.

Of the seven Assembly segments in Darjeeling parliamentary constituency, the GNLF of Subash Ghising won the Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong Assembly seats in the 2006 election. With the GNLF discredited and a disgraced Ghising forced into exile (he now camps in Siliguri), the GNLF MLAs have switched allegiance to GJMM, as have all other elected functionaries. The GJMM's domination of the hill sub-divisions is absolute. Discordant views are voiced after swearing you to secrecy and in hushed whispers.

But the story in the plains is different. The four Assembly segments here were won by the CPI(M) in 2006 with thumping majorities. After delimitation, Islampur Assembly constituency has been replaced by Matigara-Naxalbari, a Left stronghold. Therefore, the political profile of the parliamentary constituency remains unchanged. With more votes in the plains than in the hills, the Congress, which is contesting this election in alliance with the Trinamool Congress, and the CPI(M) are concentrating on voters in these four Assembly segments.

Had it been a direct contest, then this strategy would have worked to the advantage of Jaswant Singh's opponent. But with the pahadi votes consolidating in support of Jaswant Singh, the plains votes will be split between the Congress and the CPI(M). Unless there is tactical voting in the plains to defeat the BJP and thus diminish the perceived clout of the GJMM, Jaswant Singh will win with a handsome margin. It could even be an unprecedented landslide victory. Since there are no signs yet of a tactical consolidation of votes in the plains, this is one seat the BJP can count as already won. The price of victory, however, is another story.


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Different topic:

India to drink the Negroponte Kool Aid

India gives OLPC its biggest ever order. This makes no sense. Except for Peru, no country fell for this.

blogger said...

US State Dept Report April 2009: India THE most Terror afflicted country.

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