Darjeeling: Neither Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee nor Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung will contest the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, but it will be a battle royale between the two in the hills torn by the statehood demand.

The breathtaking and scenic Darjeeling Hills is this time also set to be the most-watched Lok Sabha constituency in West Bengal with TMC candidate and former Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia taking on the GJM-supported BJP candidate SS Aluwahlia for the election on April 17.

Darjeeling hills has been on the boil since the 80s over the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, beginning with the movement under the leadership of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supremo Subhas Ghising who, however, later backtracked on the agitation.

Ghising was subsequently ousted in 2006 by his one-time aide Gurung, who took over the reins of the movement for a separate state.

But with the change of guard in Bengal in 2011, GJM entered into a tripartite Gorkhaland Territorial Administration agreement with the Trinamool-led state government and the UPA-II dispensation at the Centre.

The Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, with an electorate of 12,15,464 in 2009, had in the parliamentary polls that year elected BJP candidate Jaswant Singh, who was supported by GJM, by a margin of nearly five lakh votes.

The nearest contender, Jibesh Sarkar of Left Front, polled 2,44,360 votes while the GNLF-supported TMC-Congress candidate received 1,87,809 votes.

But the equation in hill politics has changed over the last five years with the ruling TMC trying to get an upper hand over GJM.

Just a day after Banerjee announced Bhutia, a native of Sikkim, as the TMC candidate for the Darjeeling seat, GJM said it would not support him as he was an “outsider”.

Initially, Bhutia had been confident about convincing the GJM leadership, but back channel talks received a setback after GJM, like in 2009, decided to support BJP’s Ahluwalia.

“I am being branded an outsider. But what about Mr Aluwahlia and Jaswant Singh, are they from the hills? I have been with the people of Darjeeling from my days as a footballer,” Bhutia told PTI.

Gurung for his part has justified his support of BJP, claiming that national identity and security of Gorkhas was needed for a separate state.

“It is highly likely that the next government at the Centre will be that of the BJP and the prospects for Gorkhaland are bright,” Gurung had said.

Gurung’s view that BJP would support the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland received a boost when Aluwahlia said, “People who are against the division of the state have the constitutional right to oppose but, at the same time, the Gorkhas by demanding a separate state are also not asking for anything unconstitutional.”

Although both candidates exuded confidence about their victory, it would be a litmus test for Gurung to ascertain whether he still called the shots in the hills or had lost ground to the feisty Banerjee.

The ruling TMC, which will be trying to prove its relevance in the hills, received a shot in the arm when GNLF chief Ghising, Gurung’s bete noire, returned to Darjeeling with support from the party.

GNLF has 50,000 to one lakh votes in the hills and could play spoilsport for GJM, which had a cakewalk the in 2009 polls.

Apart from bringing back GNLF, TMC has also managed to attract Lepchas and Bhutias, minorities in the Gorkha-majority Darjeeling, into its fold.

Left Front, which looks to be an underdog in the polls, has fielded CPI(M) leader Saman Pathak for the seat.

Congress has named Sujay Ghatak, who is a Siliguri Municipal Corporation councillor, as its candidate here.

But the honeymoon was short-lived after the Centre decided to grant separate statehood to Telangana by means of the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.

Having survived on the issue of separate identity and statehood for the people of Darjeeling, GJM then renewed its violent agitation in the hills with the protests frequently accompanied by shutdowns.

But unlike the previous Left regime, which had just stopped short of taking stern action, the Mamata Banerjee government dealt with the matter with an iron hand, resulting in the arrest of several top GJM leaders.

Sensing the mood, GJM sounded the retreat and withdrew its violent agitation.

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