The summer hit West Bengal early this year. In many parts of the state, the temperature touched 43 degrees Celsius. But up in the north in Siliguri, the weather continued to be pleasant. The political temperature, however, was at boiling point in the Himalayan foothills. It was here that the CPI(M) perfected its understanding with the Congress during last year's local body elections.
Ashok Bhattacharya, the mayor of Siliguri corporation and former minister in the Left Front government, was the man who worked behind the CPI(M)-Congress tie-up, which is now being replicated across the state. When THE WEEK caught up with Bhattacharya, he was busy campaigning at the Bagha Jatin Park, a favourite meeting place for Siliguri's young couples. Pitted against former Indian footballer Baichung Bhutia of the Trinamool Congress in Siliguri, Bhattacharya has worked hard to woo young voters. Some of the young boys and girls were seen shaking hands with him. Some seemed shy and left quickly. But Bhattacharya said he was confident that he would get their votes, too. “This is because we have shown the rest of Bengal how to retaliate against Trinamool goons. We will give them a tit-for-tat reply.”
Bhattacharya's bravado seems to have emboldened CPI(M) workers across West Bengal. In Birbhum district in the south, which went to polls on April 17, although the Trinamool workers reportedly forced voters in at least 100 booths to stay away from voting, there were also reports that the party was not able to place polling agents in several booths.
Bhattacharya said he did not bother to call the police or election observers to tackle the Trinamool's challenge. “I called observers only once. But they did not do anything. I realised that they were useless. So I have asked my party workers to resist the Trinamool army on their own,” he said.
Apart from the tie-up with the Congress, Bhattacharya worked with the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the hills to ensure the Trinamool's defeat. A few days before the polling on April 17, he announced that the CPI(M) would support GJM candidates in three seats in the Darjeeling hills, although the GJM was part of the National Democratic Alliance. “We do not have any party organisation in the hills. So there was no question of putting up our own candidates and give the Trinamool a chance to win. Since we could not do it on our own, I would support a secular force which would defeat the Trinamool,” said Bhattacharya.
BHUTIA CALLED THE move “opportunistic politics”. “They first showed their true colours when they aligned with the Congress. Now with their support of the GJM, which is not only a part of the NDA, but also wants to divide Bengal, they have been exposed completely,” said Bhutia.
In response to Bhattacharya's aggressive tactics, Bhutia spent a lot of time in Siliguri's slums. With the support of the slum dwellers, who constitute about 40 per cent of voters in Siliguri, Bhutia hoped to offset Bhattacharya's advantage among the constituency's middle class. Each morning, he spent nearly three hours practising football with children in the slums. Bhutia might also benefit from reports that Mamata Banerjee might appoint him sports minister. Bhutia said he was not in the race to become a minister. “It is the prerogative of the chief minister,” he said. “Actually, I feel none of us could do anything without Mamata. She is our biggest strength. She was right when she asked voters to consider her to be the candidate in all 294 assembly seats.”
Mamata’s hill policy could prove to be decisive. She restored peace in the Maoist regions and succeeded in bringing politics back to the Darjeeling hills. Realising that the GJM had the support of a majority of the Gorkhas, she set up eight development boards for the Lamas, Lepchas, Tamangs and other tribes in Darjeeling. In the last two years, the Trinamool has made steady progress in Darjeeling politics. The supporters of Subhash Ghisingh, the late separatist leader, have joined the party in large numbers. Mamata also managed to woo GJM MLA Harka Bahadur Chettri, the party's tallest leader in Kalimpong. Chettri launched the Jana Andolan Party and contested with the Trinamool's support.
“Trinamool leaders wanted me to break away from the GJM and join their party. I objected to it. But without consulting me, they declared me as their candidate,” said Chettri. He said he told Mamata that if he contested as a Trinamool candidate, he would lose his deposit. “One cabinet minister offered me money to contest as a Trinamool candidate. But I told Mamata di that it would be better if I won with small money than losing the seat with more money. She accepted my argument,” he said. The move gave GJM supremo Bimal Gurung another headache. But he said the GJM would win all its seats, including Kalimpong.
Two years ago, the GJM leadership asked its three MLAs to quit the assembly as the Mamata government refused to cede power to the autonomous hill council. Chettri and Darjeeling MLA Trilok Dewan, however, refused to resign. So, why was the GJM contesting once again to send MLAs to the assembly? “We asked them to resign because barring one, the other two MLAs were doing nothing. Chettri was hobnobbing with Mamata, who was causing great harm to the cause of hills and was dividing the hill people on the lines of caste, creed and religion,” said GJM leader Roshan Giri.
But Chettri’s emergence as a strong leader and the support he enjoys in the hills put the GJM on the back foot. The entire GJM leadership was in Kalimpong to campaign against Chettri. Two days before the election, Gurung held a major rally in Kalimpong. If Chettri still manages to win, it will be the biggest upset in the history of Darjeeling politics. Giri denied that the GJM had a deal with the BJP and the CPI(M). He, however, conceded that his party would be happy if the “Congress-CPI(M) alliance” won the elections.
Chettri said that although he was confident about his victory, Darjeeling politics was on the verge of poriborton (change). “Forget the days of agitation and the demand for separate statehood,” he said. “We are now very much part of Bengal politics and would remain so. Just imagine, I have brought the CPI(M) and the BJP together in Darjeeling.”