KALIMPONG, APRIL 15: At 5e in the evening, the centre of Kalimpong, a hill station known for its flowers and cheese, comes alive. People are going about their business under the gaze of Narendra Modi, who towers over them from a billboard that declares, quite oddly, in Bengali: “Aabaar aek baar, Modi sarkar” (Modi Government once again).
After all, it was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision in 2017 to introduce Bengali as a medium of instruction in the hills of Bengal that had triggered a 104-day strike in the region, making her an unpopular figure among the Gurkhas. But nobody seems to mind the BJP’s billboard in Bengali.
Amid the bustle, BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya emerges from one of the roads, behind 2 gun-toting CISF guards, and walks down the row of shops distributing pamphlets.
“People are going to vote for Modi,” says a saleswoman in a bakery that has been just handed a pamphlet. But her colleague disagrees. “I think it’s going to be neck and neck between Modi and Mamata,” the woman says. The shop owner, who is not a Gurkha, offers his opinion: “The strike was called by the GJM [Gurkha Janmukti Morcha]. Why blame Mamata for it? The Centre could have easily defused the crisis, but the BJP wanted Mamata’s attention to be diverted to the hills so that it could work on expanding its presence in the plains of Bengal.”
In Kalimpong, which is part of the Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency, one does hear the occasional voice in favour of the Chief Minister – unlike in Darjeeling, where the mood appears to be decisively in favour of Modi. There are even people who see her party winning the seat.
“When SS Ahluwalia [of the BJP] won the seat in 2014, the Modi wave was at its peak and the GJM [supporting the BJP] was strong and united. This time, the BJP is likely to get 15-20% votes less in the plains because of factors such as demonetisation and the GST, and also because its candidate is a Gurkha. In the hills too, the GJM has split and the votes are going to be divided because Harka Bahadur Chhetri [a respected Kalimpong-based Gurkha leader and founder of Jan Andolan Party] is in the fray,” says Sandip Jain, Editor-in-Chief of the fortnightly Himalayan Times.
Chhetri says he has no agenda in the election. “I am telling the voters that their agenda is my agenda – I will be merely the postman who will take their agenda to Parliament without dilution. I am asking them not to go for any national or State party because their MP – unlike me – will have to take instructions from their bosses,” the former MLA told The Hindu.
The next afternoon, perched on the slope of a hill, I listen to BJP president Amit Shah addressing a rally on the grounds of Dr. Graham’s Homes. “If anyone is more Indian than me,” he thunders, “it is my Gurkha brothers.”
Shah then explains why the party chose to give ticket to Raju Bista, who is a Gurkha from Manipur and not the hills of Bengal: “He is a management expert and he is of Nepali origin. He will assimilate with you just like sugar dissolves into milk.”
The only thing is that the attendance at Shah’s rally is thin. Some people blamed it on Ms. Banerjee. They said many people did not want to be seen supporting the BJP.
Shah told the rally that the BJP was certain to win 23 seats in Bengal. Why 23? Here is a guess: the total number of Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal is 42 and by winning 22, the BJP will pocket more than half the seats – but devout Hindus tend to consider odd numbers auspicious; therefore, 23. (Courtesy: The Hindu)