Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress' might have swept West Bengal but it failed to dislodge the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling hills. Despite Banerjee's attempts to gain a foothold in the hills, the GJM won all 3 constituencies in the area - Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong.
The message from the Darjeeling hills is loud and clear - the appeal for Gorkhaland is very much alive. Mamata's rigidity on the Gorkhaland issue has once again led to a near boycott of the TMC in the hills.
Roshan Giri, General Secretary of the GJM, spoke to Catch from Darjeeling.
"We were extremely confident of retaining all the 3 seats in the hills. And that is exactly what happened. We are extremely happy with the results and that people still have faith in us. People are very firm on their appeal for the state of Gorkhaland and they know we are the only party that can help them get there," he said.
Amar Singh Rai of the GJM
defeated TMC's Sarda Rai Subba in Darjeeling by 49,441 votes.
Sarita Rai defeated Jan Andolan Party chief Harka Bahadur Chettri by 11,431 votes in Kalimpong. Rohit Sharma of the GJM won the elections from Kurseong for the second consecutive time, this time defeating TMC's Shanta Chettri by 33,726 votes.
While TMC decimated the opposition in the rest of Bengal, the party's promises of development fell on deaf ears in the hills. The party was unable to create a strong opposition to the GJM and the candidates' silence on the Gorkhaland issue evidently worked against them.
The demand for a separate state continues to be the most important factor and the distrust towards Bengal parties continues.
The decimation of TMC in the area is also an indirect win for GJM's ally - the BJP. The BJP won from Darjeeling in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by allying with the GJM.
The 3 seats won by the GJM gave a sense of respectability to the BJP-led alliance in what was otherwise a mediocre performance in West Bengal. BJP could win only 3 seats in the rest of the state.
Interestingly, the CPI(M) indirectly lent support to the GJM by not putting up any candidates in the hills and asking their supporters to vote for the GJM. The Gorkha National Liberation Front's (GNLF) support to the TMC evidently did not have any effect. Shanta Chettri, a 3-time former GNLF MLA from Kurseong was comprehensively defeated by Rohit Sharma of the GJM.
Harka Bahadur Chettri, former GJM MLA from Kalimpong quit the GJM after being asked to resign from the state government in 2015. He continued his tenure as an independent MLA. Chettri founded his own party called the Jan Adolan Party (JAP) in Kalimpong in early 2016.
Chhetri was initially nominated as a TMC candidate - Mamata Banerjee had announced his name in the TMC candidate list in February. But he quickly clarified, saying that he would fight on a JAP ticket. TMC's backing however proved to be a deal breaker for Kalimpong voters who had otherwise voted for him the last time around.
The appeal of Gorkhaland is a sentimental one. GJM has used this sentiment to their advantage time and again.
Two things remain to be seen in the near future. First, how Mamata Banerjee deals with the Darjeeling hills in her second term as CM, especially given the manner her party has been rejected in the region. Second is whether the GJM is able to leverage its alliance with the BJP at the Centre to push for a separate state,