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Home of India's aACAyToy Train' faces dilemma.

Siliguri, West Bengal: Voters in the picturesque hill station of Darjeeling face a very difficult choice this general election.

Their political choice will not only decide the fate of 13 candidates contesting in the constituency, but their own lives, livelihoods and the long standing demand of statehood.

The world-famous hill station and its equally well known toy train, both of which have just been trudging along for all these years, mostly due to political apathy, a moribund economy and politics of muscle and money, may be further endangered, if the 1.4 million eligible voters do not choose the right people.

The main contest is between Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung and "rough and tough" chief minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, through their proxy candidates, the BJP's S.S. Ahluwalia and Trinamool Congress's (TMC) footballer candidate Bhaichung Bhutia.

It's a prestige fight for Banerjee, as she herself has raised the stakes in the region, by identifying it as a special constituency and has since led a concerted campaign in favour of her party's candidate.

Though TMC is likely to win the majority of the 42 parliamentary seats in the state, winning the Darjeeling seat has become extremely important for her three-year old state government, which has been blamed for the breakdown of the law and order every time the hills are shut in demand of statehood.

Losing this seat would once again prove that, despite her statewide influence and political clout, Mamata and her candidate are both outsiders to hills politics.

For GJM chief Gurung, this election is a question of the survival of the party as it will be probably the last fight for Gorkhaland, he admits.

If voters decide to go against them; it will be the end of their demand for separate statehood. The party claims to have the largest supporter base, more concentrated in the three assembly segments of the hills -- Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Kurseong -- than in the four of the plains -- with the Trinamool Congress holding three of these assembly seats and an independent having won the fourth.

When it supported the BJP's Jaswant Singh in 2009, he had won 52 per cent of the votes polled, and won by an enviable margin of over 250,000.

To Banerjee's credit, she has been able to shake things up in the hills. In earlier elections, a word of support from the GJM would have meant a sure win for any candidate and most of the other political outfits did not even bother to contest.

The State government has been successful in reaching out to smaller communities such as the Lepchas the Tamangs and the influential tea workers and set up development boards for them. These steps have paid dividends and the party has a considerable presence in the hills.

The surprise but late entry of Subhas Ghising, of the Gorkha National Liberation Front and his decision to support the Trinamool Congress has dented the fortunes of the GJM.

Ghising's GNLF, though, is a shadow of its former self, forced by Gurung to lead a life of exile outside Darjeeling from 2008 to 2011.

While his absence was long enough to see his support base and his demand for autonomy for the Gurkhas hijacked, Ghising has been slowly building a base, cashing in on growing weakness in Gurung's hold.

It is not difficult to see the TMC's move to bring him back as an attempt to foil a coalition between Gurung and the BJP.

Ghising is seeking to incorporate North Bengal under the Sixth Schedule, to give the area autonomy and is no longer aiming for a separate state anymore.

This suits the current state government as well as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose current Darjeeling district secretary Jibesh Sarkar has invited support from GNLF.

Also the entry of Mahendra P. Lama, former Vice-Chancellor of Sikkim University and a local, who is contesting the polls as an Independent has made Gurung nervous. Professor Lama has targeted the GJM for not being committed to the Gorkhaland cause. If he draws support in the hills, he might eat into the party's vote share.

"TMC is trying to break our support base by money power and false promises. Mamata Banerjee has been playing divisive politics with the hill population," GJM president Bimal Gurung told Gulf News.

"But the people are with us. The BJP has mentioned small states in their manifesto and Ahluwalia will be our representative and raise the issue of Gorkhaland," he adds. "Bhutia is a footballer and not a politician and should have been fielded from Sikkim. And people in the villages don't know Lama."

Ahluwalia is however treading with caution, as he knows that an open support to statehood demand will not only diminish his chances in Siliguri, the plains in the constituency, but will also puncture the party's fortunes in the remaining seats of the state.

"We are in favour of smaller states for better governance. That's why we supported the creation of Telengana. BJP we will sympathetically examine and appropriately consider the long-pending demands of the Gurkhas. Our priority is also to ensure development especially in the tourism and tea sector," said the candidate choosing his words carefully.

Sceptics, however, believe that a victory for the BJP-GJM combine or the TMC will have little meaning if political complexities in the region lead to new times of uncertainty.

"All the three candidates stand an equal chance. Voting for Bhutia means bringing peace and development, while voting for Lama means hoping for a separate state but without a shutdown, and the BJP would mean a larger say in the next central government," said a tea vendor at the famous mall road.

"People have a simple choice," said a cab driver. "It's either peace, development, star power, in coalition with an ageing leader who we once saw as a champion of our rights, versus battle between more autonomy and a separate state."

It will be only known on May 16 what the people of Darjeeling finally decided for themselves.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Apr 17, 2014
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