Mamata Banerjee skips Darjeeling hills visit twice in fortnight; for her, discretion is better part of valour

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee
For West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it apparently is a case of discretion being the better part of valour. Why else would she have chosen not to visit the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts for the second time within the past fortnight?

Her visit was meant to be in connection with events organised with the intent to, among other things, give a fillip to the region's tourism sector – that has taken a beating owing to a protracted period of strife in the wake of her last visit in June last year, one that changed the very contours of the local political landscape.

Having opted to stay away from a tourism festival in the hills, of which her government was a cosponsor late last month, she inaugurated the Uttarbanga Utsav in the foothills in Siliguri on Monday. This was the seventh edition of the cultural extravaganza for north Bengal and was unlike the previous edition, which she had declared open in the hill-town of Kurseong.

Given the ongoing political developments in the region, such festivals take on a deeper meaning than might be normally associated with them. But this time around, there was no word of her going up to the hills despite their proximity.

Obviously, the state authorities still believe that all is not hunky-dory in the hills. True, the optics of a chief minister flanked by important hill leaders on the rostrum were there, but her call for peace in the hills and her promise of development there came from beyond the periphery, in the foothills.

And, incidentally, this comes at a time when anticipation has peaked among the various stakeholders of what might transpire at the Supreme Court hearing – now imminent – on her government's plea for recall of an earlier notice restraining it to take "any coercive action" against Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung, her arch-adversary in the hills.

The apex court had, at the last hearing, adjourned the matter to the second week this month. Gurung had been served a look-out notice by the state police administration and was slapped with various charges including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He was charged for his connection with alleged criminal offences during last year's Gorkhaland agitation, a stir he was the chief architect of.

    That its next ruling will have a critical bearing on the future course of politics in the hills cannot be overstated.

Having driven a wedge – with some success so far – within the leadership of the GJM, the chief minister is clearly testing the political waters in the hills, even as the opposing factions within the party await a loyalty count on the ground.

What made particularly interesting reading recently is the contrasting nuances in separate new-year messages meant for the people from Gurung and his main challenger, Binay Tamang, handpicked by Mamata to head the board of administrators of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) and in whom she has invested substantially in the government's attempts to restore normality in the hills.

While Gurung pitches himself as the guardian of the community and invokes the struggle for identity, reflective of the personality-centric politics of the region, Tamang, in what is being construed as a significant change in political strategy, goes as far as admitting that the recent statehood agitation has been one bereft of direction and cost the local people dearly.

His call is one for a more realistic approach to matters at hand, suggesting a jettisoning of the emotive impulse and a change in functional style, and one that the state government should have little hesitation appreciating.

Tamang has not just outright rejected Gurung's political stance through his message, implicit in it is his warning to the state's views on issues pertaining to the hills, to the point even of contrition for having gone down the wrong road and lent oneself to what, he concedes, was a flawed political programme.

Yet, underlying the tussle for control of party, and arguably more importantly, for taking over the mantle of the 'Gorkhaland' demand that frames the agendas of all hill political groupings, is the power-play between Mamata's government and the BJP-led one at the Centre, who have their respective surrogates in place at the local level.

    And while the political fate of Gurung, still very much a fugitive, depends largely on the Supreme Court ruling on the state's recall plea, and on whether or not he can pave a way back for himself into the thick of police activity in the hills – a return that would be a welcome development for the BJP – Tamang has a fine line ahead to tread on.

Fending off the charge of capitulating to the political designs of a chief minister whose party has its own set of aspirations in the hills is no easy task in a milieu marked by volatility and flux, with more than its share of shifting alignments.

For West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it apparently is a case of discretion being the better part of valour. Why else would she have chosen not to visit the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts for the second time within the past fortnight?

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