“Kolkata metro rail is now running through an underwater river tunnel. It is India’s first underwater metro transportation. Look at Darjeeling, it is still clinging to the century-old infrastructure. Here, the economy is heavily dependent on tourism. But the reality is Darjeeling lacks the much-needed infrastructure upgrade,” rues Siddarth Kalilotay, a technician.

PM Narendra Modi in March flagged off the Kolkata Metro extension, which passes below the mighty Hooghly River. It significantly reduces travel time between Kolkata and Howrah. Traffic also gets decongested.

Kalilotay was busy with his work at a mobile service centre on bustling HD Lama Road. The narrow road was brimming with tourists flocking to the popular hill station looking for a tranquil vacation.

Tourist Downturn

Hoteliers, however, lament that currently the number of tourists is less in the “Queen of Hills” compared with the same period last year, with the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat, along with two other constituencies in the northern part of West Bengal, going to polls on April 26 in the second phase of the elections. 

Raju Bista, the incumbent BJP MP, is seeking re-election from here. Bista had won the constituency by a margin of over 4 lakh votes in the 2019 LS elections, defeating the Trinamool Congress’ Amar Singh Rai. This time, the ruling TMC in the state has fielded Gopal Lama for the constituency. Lama is a retired bureaucrat.

Since its inception in 1998, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool has never won the Darjeeling seat, which has a significant number of voters from the Gorkha community. As per the 2011 Census, Gorkhas constitute around 46 per cent of the population in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts.

Darjeeling has been a BJP bastion since 2009. According to locals, two factors worked in favour of the saffron party: Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung’s support for the BJP and strong anti-ruling party sentiments that generally persist in the hills.

“People in Darjeeling Hills traditionally do not support the ruling party in West Bengal as they believe that the State government neglects them. Demand for Gorkhaland is still very strong here. They are supporting the BJP because Bimal Gurung has been backing it,” points out Kalilotay.

“Gurung has a very strong grip on the hills. He recently held a public rally in support of the BJP. There was a huge gathering,” says Puran Thapa, a local businessman.

Before every parliamentary election, the issue of a separate state of Gorkhaland comes back in focus. 

Demand for Gorkhaland

“We want Gorkhaland. It is our constitutional right,” 55-year-old Anupa Thuppa utters. Suren Rai, a serviceman, believes the creation of Gorkhaland will ensure faster development in the hills. “Gorkhaland is our demand because it will secure our identity and ensure greater economic development.” Now, when we travel to Delhi, people ask if we are from Nepal. After the creation of a separate State we will be able to reply that we have come from our own state,” Rai said.

“The Trinamool Congress government is involved in multiple scams. This government is not supporting our growth agenda. The situation in the tea gardens here is very serious. The wage revision for tea garden workers has been very low,” he adds. Darjeeling tea is world-famous for its flavour and aroma.

BJP’s Raju Bista is banking on the people’s sentiment of Gorkhaland. According to him, the Central government has started the process of resolving this political issue, and it is progressing fast in this direction.

“The BJP and the Centre are only pursuing a political bluff on Gorkhaland before elections. It is not possible under the Constitution. Bista did not do any development work in the last five years. People now understand that only Mamata Banerjee can ensure development and social welfare here,” said Papiya Ghosh, president of Darjeeling district Trinamool Congress.