Kolkata: Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) founder Bimal Gurung’s surprise announcement of quitting the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and aligning with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) will see a shift in political equations in the run-up to the 2021 assembly election in West Bengal.
Gurung, who announced his support for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party Wednesday night, has not reneged on his demand for Gorkhaland, an issue the TMC had earlier dismissed.
Speaking to ThePrint, North Bengal Development Minister Rabindranath Ghosh said the Gorkhaland demand can never be “fulfilled”. Instead, the parties may negotiate over “developmental issues and funds” for the hills.
The GJM parted ways from the BJP-led NDA after 11 years. This is the second break in a long-standing partnership for the BJP in a month; the Shiromani Akali Dal quit the alliance in September over the new farm bills brought in by the Modi government.
However, the impact is more severe for the BJP’s political ambitions in the state, especially in North Bengal. Around 21 assembly constituencies in North Bengal have over 30 to 35 per cent of hill tribes.
TMC welcomes Gurung, but silent on Gorkhaland
Gurung made a dramatic public appearance in Kolkata after being on the run for three years — there are as many as 156 cases against him, including charges of murder and sedition — to announce the GJM’s change in allegiance, and said “the party felt cheated by the BJP” given that 11 hill tribes are yet to be designated Scheduled Tribes.
In a hurriedly-convened press conference in a hotel in central Kolkata, Gurung said he had taken a “great risk” in coming to Kolkata, and that he will start talking to top Trinamool leaders soon.
On the charges against him, which include rioting, arson and even charges under the stringent Unlawful Activity Prevention Act, Gurung said he was “not a terrorist, neither a murderer”.
“The cases slapped against me were politically motivated … I will do a political settlement for that.” According to one of Gurung’s lawyers, an appeal for anticipatory bail is pending before a division bench in Calcutta High Court.
The ruling TMC welcomed the GJM’s decision, but remained silent on his demand. About three hours after the press meet, the party issued a statement saying: “BJP’s attempt to use Gorkhaland issue for petty politics is now fully exposed.”
We welcome Bimal Gurung’s commitment to peace & decision to withdraw support from NDA while reposing faith in @MamataOfficial's leadership. BJP's attempts to use Gorkhaland issue for petty politics & their untrustworthy nature now lay fully exposed before people of Bengal. (1/2)
— All India Trinamool Congress (@AITCofficial) October 21, 2020
For over a decade, the GJM has been a dominant force in the demand for a separate Gorkhaland state that would include the Darjeeling hill region and a part of the foothills of West Bengal. While part of the NDA, the GJM gave the BJP three terms from the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat.
Gurung alleged that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not kept his commitment towards Gorkhaland.
At the Wednesday press meet, he said he would “align with anyone who would give a permanent political solution” to Gorkhas, and clarified the GJM had “not backtracked” from their demand.
North Bengal Development Minister Ghosh, however, told ThePrint that Trinamool has always been clear about not supporting the Gorkhaland demand.
“Mamata Banerjee has made her stand very clear on the statehood demand. Division of state and creating a separate Gorkhaland can never be a choice for us. Mamata Banerjee will never allow Darjeeling to be carved out of Bengal. We never support Gorkhaland. This is a clear line for us and it never changed. Gurung joined Trinamool today, quitting NDA is of course a welcome step. Good sense prevailed on him. But he should never expect support for Gorkhaland from us,” Ghosh said.
“Didi always wanted a dialogue with them on development and all other issues. She is ready to do everything for the people of hills. But she will never allow a separate state. Moreover, a separate state cannot be created with three assembly segments,” he added.
On how Gurung’s decision impacts the politics of North Bengal, Ghosh said, “North Bengal has a sizeable population of hill tribes. Gurung still has an influence on them. So his joining sends out a message.”
BJP blames Mamata’s ‘arm-twisting politics’
The BJP, though, has downplayed Gurung’s announcement, and added that the party will keep its promise of finding a political solution for Gorkhaland.
“Bimal Gurung has been our ally for over 11 years — barring a short break during the 2016 assembly election. His withdrawal from NDA will not make much difference for us as people of the hills love Modi ji. We will surely keep our promise and bring a political solution for Gorkhaland with or without Gurung,” national general secretary Kailash Vijaywargiya told ThePrint.
“Gurung’s words of praise for Mamata Banerjee and his sudden appearance in Kolkata prove how Mamata didi slap(s) political cases against people and later use(s) them to arm-twist or intimidate,” he added.
BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy said he was unaware of the GJM’s change in stance, but added that the party will “have to think and re-strategise certain areas”.
Impact on assembly election
With West Bengal heading into an election year, the GJM’s support to Trinamool changes things in the northern hill region of the state.
“With Gurung as an ally, BJP had a sure chance in 11 seats, including three hill and eight foothill assembly segments. But, now, uncertainty looms. But, traditionally hill people always accept someone as a leader until he fights against the state government,” said political analyst Biswanat Chakrabarti.
“BJP, with Gurung by their side, won in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and also assembly bypoll in Darjeeling assembly segment … Mamata Banerjee now has an additional burden of handling his Gorkhaland demand,” he added.
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