Last week, senior journalist Anita Katyal in an opinion column highlighted how retired diplomats bureaucrats, especially former diplomats, "are clearly a hot favourite with the Narendra Modi government".
She went on to add that after the induction of the likes of bureaucrats like S Jaishankar, Hardeep Singh Puri, RK Singh, and Ashwani Vaishnav, there is a strong buzz in the capital that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) plans to field former foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in next year’s Lok Sabha election from the Darjeeling constituency.
This piece of news comes as Shringla becomes the man of the moment as the G20 chief coordinator.
As Shobha De wrote in a column in The Week, there is absolutely nothing "accidental" about "the steady and impressive rise and rise of a self-effacing powerhouse, who has steered India’s policy in all the right directions from the time he joined the Indian Foreign Service."
But will the 'rise' of one of India's most distinguished diplomats necessarily transform into electoral gains for the BJP?
'A True Gorkha Chora With a Distinguished Family Background'
Anita Katyal wrote how the BJP has zeroed down in on Shringla as he hails from the Darjeeling and Sikkim region – and grew up speaking Nepali at home.
While his father is a Sikkimese Buddhist, his mother is a Hindu Nepali.
"Shringla's family is well-respected in Darjeeling as well as Sikkim. Harsh Vardhan is seen as a true Gorkha chora (a son of the Gorkhas). Very rarely have people from this part of the country risen to the heights that he has risen to," Vikram Rai, assistant professor of mass communication and journalism at St Joseph's College, Darjeeling, told The Quint.
Speaking to The Quint, Deepmala Roka, who wrote Shringla's biography titled Not an Accidental Rise, his paternal family has been locally prominent in the area of public service and business.
While Shringla's grandfather was a successful businessman who established businesses that supplied the schools and other institutions, including the Darjeeling with their provisions, ranging from processed food items to fruits and vegetables, his grandfather's brother was the proprieter of what is still one of the famous hotels in Darjeeling, the Windamere Hotel.
The Shringla family is also among the only two families in India that has produced more than one foreign secretary.
"Shringla's aunt Chokila Iyer was India's first female foreign secretary bewteen March 2001 and June 2002. The only other Indian family to hold that distinction is the famous Menon family (KPS Menon who was India's first foreign secretary, KPS Menon [junior] who was India's 15th foreign secretary, and Shivshankar Menon who was India's 27th foreign secretary)."Deepmala Roka
"Harsh Vardhan is even more liked because of his humble and down-to-earth nature. He is a grounded diplomat – and has often helped people from Darjeeling. Most recently, during the COVID crisis, he helping those from the region stranded outside India and ensured their safe passage home," Rai added.
However, the Gorkha chora has never really lived in Darjeeling or was even born there. He was born in Mumbai, attended the Mayo School in Rajasthan's Ajmer, and went on to graduate with an Honours degree in History from St Stephen's College, University of Delhi.
"But he always remained attached to his roots in Darjeeling. Holidays always meant visiting Darjeeling. Much like how the hill town's religious culture is syncretic with influences of both Buddhism and Hinduism penetrating into households, Shringla and his brother were brought up in that very culture. His father was a Buddhist, but practised Hindusim as much as Buddhism. His mother was a Hindu. Respect was inculcated for both traditions at home," Roka said.
Efforts to Boost Shringla's Profile
What has really boosted Shringla's public profile in Darjeeling was a three-day G20 tourism meeting held in Darjeeling in April earlier this year. It was the first-of-its-kind in the region – and Shringla was seen as the driving force behind it.
"You have to understand the political importance of such an event being held here. In the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, Darjeeling hills had a vibrant economy dependent on tourism and education. It was boosted by the fact that many Bollywood movies (such as Aradhana and Mera Naam Joker) depicting the beautiful landscapes, were shot here. However, once the violent agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland started in 1986, things quickly went downhill for us from which we have never really been able to recover," a senior Nepali journalist based in Siliguri, who did not wish to be identified, told The Quint.
"We were just about recovering from this big blow when a renewed movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland began in 2007. That ultimately culminated in the 104-day strike in 2017 – and that along with COVID-19 nearly finished our industries, including the tea industry," they added.
"The decision to host an event like G20 in the region was, therefore, a sign that things are slowly looking up for the region. And Shringla being the chief coordinator was seen as being behind the decision to hold an important event like this in Darjeeling, thereby reaffirming his faith and belief in the potential of the people."
In fact, conscious efforts have been made over the past few months to boost Shringla’s profile. A few days after the three-day meet in the hills, Shringla’s biography, Not an Accidental Rise, was launched in Darjeeling.
A special programme was held in Darjeeling, where a digital translation of the book in Nepali language was released along with the English version. A Bengali translation is also on the cards.
BJP's Trend of Fielding 'Outsiders'
The Darjeeling hills gave the BJP its first MP from West Bengal in 2009 with Jaswant Singh, who was from Rajasthan's Barmer, winning the seat, thanks to the support of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) led by Bimal Gurung.
In the 2014 elections, the saffron party fielded Union Minister SS Ahluwalia, from the seat. In this election, too, the GJM supported the BJP on “the promise to consider the demand of Gorkhaland“ and helped Ahluwalia win the crucial seat.
Ahluwalia beat former Indian footballer Bhaichung Bhutia, who was then with the Trinamool Congress. Ahluwalia, however, faced a lot of criticism for being “absent” from his constituency during and after the 104-day shutdown in the hills which saw violent clashes between the pro-Gorkhaland agitators and state security forces and left at least 14 dead.
In 2019, the party fielded political greenhorn Raju Singh Bista, an industrialist. Though Manipur-born Bista is Nepali-speaking, many in the Darjeeling hills still consider him as an “outsider”.
The GJM supported him. But in late 2020, the party supremo Bimal Gurung announced that he was he was breaking ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
'BJP Losing Support in Darjeeling'
"Being outsiders, all of these MPs are seen as not being very sympathetic to the cause of Gorkhaland which is a demand for a majority of people in the hills. There is some amount of discontent brewing against the BJP. This is primarily because in the 2019 manifesto, the party had promised a permanent political solution for Darjeeling, but nothing seems to have happened so far," said the senior journalist.
Harka Bahadur Chhetri, a former MLA from Darjeeling’s neighbouring hill station of Kalimpong and retired high school teacher known as an intellectual among politicians in the hills, echoed the journalist.
"The BJP has lost public sympathy because people have realised that their talk of a permanent political solution is nothing but lip service. Repeated clarifications from top BJP leaders, saying they are against bifurcation of West Bengal, have not been received well by the political leadership and people of the Darjeeling hills."Harka Bahadur Chhetri
The recent two-tier panchayat polls held in Kalimpong and Darjeeling district after a gap of 23 year perhaps are an indication of the same discontentment. The Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) emerged as the most important political party in the region, with its candidates winning a large number of panchayat seats in both districts. The BJP – despite leading an eight-party United Gorkha Alliance against the BGPM in the rural polls – lost.
While the BGPM won 349 of the 598 seats in 70 gram panchayats in Darjeeling district, the BJP-led United Gorkha Alliance bagged only 59 seats. The BGPM also won 96 of 156 panchayat samiti seats in Darjeeling, while BJP won only 19. In Kalimpong, the BGPM won 168 of the 281 seats in 42 gram panchayats, while the BJP won 29.
So, will fielding Shringla help the BJP retain the Darjeeling seat?
"While Shringla may have become well-known in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, a large part of the plains population residing in Siliguri, Naxalbari, and Chopra have not heard of him. But then, they did not even know Raju Bista or Ahluwalia, but they still managed to win from this constituency.Senior journalist
The Darjeeling Lok Sabha constituency comprises of seven segments – Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, Matigara-Naxalbari, Siliguri, Phasidewa, and Chopra.
The BJP is yet to respond to The Quint's questions regarding fielding Shringla from the Darjeeling seat.
"Moreover, the BGPM (which has the support of the TMC) has emerged as a dominant force in the hills – and the BJP will have to put up against a tough fight," said former MLA Chettri added.