If you are watching the West Bengal election, keep an eye on Kalimpong. It's the constituency of Harka Bahadur Chettri.
Who is Harka and why is he important, you may ask.
He won the last election from Kalimpong as a nominee of the Gorkha Janmukhti Morcha and is seeking re-election. Only now, he is contesting as chief of the Jan Andolan Party, which he launched after leaving the GJM last September. And that's significant. Not least because the JAP could weaken the GJM's political dominance in the Darjeeling hills.
Inspired by the Aam Aadmi Party, the JAP is campaigning against corruption and communalism.
There was great need for such a party in the hills, claims Harka, as all other parties have let the people down. "The common man in the hills has suffered immensely because of communal politics. Even the demand for Gorkhaland has been communalised. I want to take people away from this," he says.
The JAP is supported by the Trinamool Congress, which has made some voters uncomfortable given the ruling party's opposition to the creation of Gorkhaland. But Harka insists the alliance won't compromise his party's Gorkhaland agenda.
"I could have joined the Trinamool but that wouldn't have helped my agenda. Formation of Gorkhaland is the number one point in our manifesto, but it is a process," he says. "I want to empower the people of the hills first and create the necessary infrastructure. People have been deprived of basic necessities like food, water, roads, employment, education and healthcare, nothing is taken care of. For me the term 'Gorkhaland' is not a vote-catcher like it has been until now."
"Also," he adds, "the hill people consider the Trinamool a Bengali party and don't trust them. Had I joined the party, I would have been finished."
Taking a dig at the GJM, he says, "A party which has been unable to provide even water to the people of the hills claims they will get them a separate state of Gorkhaland."
Harka was initially declared a Trinamool nominee, Mamata Banerjee herself announcing his name as part of the party's candidates list in February. But he quickly clarified that he would be contesting on a JAP ticket.
Although Harka swears by Gorkhaland and Mamata is dead set against it, they seem to be getting along quite well. Harka was instrumental in getting the Mamata government to approve district status for Kalimpong. The bill to effect the change, though, is yet to be passed by the assembly.
"Practically speaking, you can't get anything from the state government if you don't maintain a cordial relationship with them, especially if you really want to work for the people. Having said that, I have never compromised the welfare of the people. I am thoroughly satisfied with the cabinet approval for the district status for Kalimpong. I have been working for it ever since I was elected in 2011. This has only happened because of my good relationship with the state government," he says.
Making Kalimpong a district, Harka argues, is a step in the direction of creating the state of Gorkhaland. "When more districts come under the proposed area of Gorkhaland, we will have more MLAs and MPs. The demand for Gorkhaland will become more valid."
"Only a fool will raise the Gorkhaland demand in the assembly. It has to be raised in the Parliament as only parliamentarians can decide whether or not Gorkhaland can be formed," he argues. "The state is not the forum. Hence, my relationship with the state government has no effect on my demand for Gorkhaland."
His rivals, chiefly the GJM, however, see the proposed demarcation of Kalimpong district as an attempt to weaken the movement for Gorkhaland. The party's General Secretary Roshan Giri argued that it was an "extremely cunning" move on Mamata's part. "This is a move to influence the people of Kalimpong and separate them from the other parts of the hills. This move is an attempt to weaken our movement," he told Catch.
Harka rejects the GJM's argument. "Our agenda for forming a separate state of Gorkhaland may be the same, but our plans for making that happen are as different as heaven and hell," he says.
Indeed, it was his opposition to GJM's methods, Harka says, that compelled him to part ways. The GJM had won Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong in the 2011 assembly election, only to order its legislators to resign in protest against the alleged "interference of the state government in the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration". The GTA is an elected semi-autonomous body that administers the hills, and is currently run by the GJM.
Harka refused to resign, however. He quit the party instead and continued as an independent MLA.
"There were hardly an similarities between me and GJM. But I realised this too late," he says. "I thought good sense would prevail but that didn't happen. A number of positions were offered to me by the state government that would have benefited our people but I wasn't allowed to accept them by the party."
Although he leads his own party now, Harka is treading cautiously. He has decided against fielding a candidate from Darjeeling or Kurseong "owing to limited resources". "We are very new. It has been just three months since we founded the party. We do not have enough resources to contest elections from other areas as of now. However, I am confident that the people of Kalimpong will choose me."
His primary opponent is GJM's Sarita Rai, a first-time contestant who, interestingly, once taught with Harka at St George's Higher Secondary School in Pedong. She is quite confident of her prospects.
"I have known Harka Bahadur Chettri as my colleague. We used to be in the same party but he was unable to take the responsibility and fight for the cause of the hill people. He is being backed by the TMC and the people of the hills will not support TMC because the party is against our demand for the state of Gorkhaland," she says.
"Every person in the hills faces a crisis of identity. We have been put in a state but are not part of it. We are called Nepalis and Sikkimese and Chinese, but we are Gorkhas and we have been part of India since time immemorial. People will vote for me because I understand what the people of this place want. They want to belong to a place that is theirs and I will fight for it till my last breath. The solution of our issues is the formation of Gorkhland."
Sarita Rai isn't bothered by the decision of the Gorkha National Liberation Front to support the Trinamool in Kurseong and Darjeeling, and the JAP in Kalimpong. "GNLF is barely surviving. Their support or opposition doesn't matter to us. It will barely affect the outcome," she asserts.
Harka disagrees, saying GNLF's support could decide the contest. "Their support is welcome to us. The last time I contested against the GNLF, and they were able to get more than 8000 votes, which is not a small number here. So it could be a deciding factor."
The battle for ballot in Kalimpong is an interesting one to watch, indeed.
Edited by Mehraj D. Lone
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