Siliguri, Feb. 11: Darjeeling district Congress president Shankar Malakar met Gorkha Janmukti Morcha chief Bimal Gurung in Darjeeling for an hour this afternoon to assure him of Congress help "in case they face any problem in running the GTA".
The timing of the meeting is important as the Congress had been mum since Roshan Giri had announced the "final fight" for Gorkhaland on January 16 but decided to send a leader to Gurung when the Morcha and Trinamul state government are not on the best of terms.
Malakar said: "It was a one-to-one discussion with Bimal Gurung, who is an old friend of ours, on the state of affairs in hills. I have urged him to make the GTA function at its best and to ensure that the hill people, who have contributed in forming this autonomous body, witness development."
Malakar said he counselled Gurung "not to step out of the GTA but instead to head it as GTA was achieved through rigorous toil of the hill residents".
Malakar said he spoke of his appreciation that the Morcha had backed him and other candidates of the Trinamul-Congress alliance during the Assembly polls in 2009. He said: "The cordial relation between us continues to exist which is why, we have made it clear to the Morcha president that the Congress is ready to help the Morcha in case they face any problem in running the GTA."
Sources in Siliguri said the Congress's move was a strategy to widen the rift between Trinamul and Morcha and to ensure that the Morcha extends support to the party in the Terai for the panchayat polls.
"We have advised Bimal Gurung that in case they confront any problem with the state government in running the GTA, they can always approach the Centre for suggestions. The Centre can help the GTA representatives in sorting out such problems. We, on behalf of Congress, are also ready to help them…," he said.
"The response we got was spontaneous and cordial and was different from the response articulated by the Morcha during the recent visit of a state minister," Malakar said without mentioning Gautam Deb, the Trinamul minister who had stayed in the hills last Saturday during the Morcha's 12-hour strike but could not speak to any hill party leader.
Malakar declined to elaborate on the panchayat elections. "Several issues were discussed in detail and I would prefer not to speak on all of them," he said.
"The Morcha has a dislike for the Left, and right now it has a rift with Trinamul. Though they have voted the BJP in the general election of 2009, the state or district leaders of the BJP in plains have never negotiated with Morcha leaders and also lack organisational base. The Congress is the only party which has no differences with the Morcha and has a base in the rural areas of Siliguri sub-division. It is an ideal opportunity for the party to strengthen its ties with the Morcha, may be in a formal manner," the source said.
"This is also a breather for the Morcha as the party was not getting back-up from any national level party in a formal manner since its differences with Trinamul."
The district Congress president, after having the closed-door talks, said he has also told Gurung that the party is ready to hold talks with the Morcha on any agenda and at any time. "There is nothing wrong in having discussions for the interests of hills," he said.
Senior Morcha leaders, who said they were not aware of the meeting, said they are looking at the move as a positive step forward. "If you are telling that the Centre is exploring the possibility of looking at solving the impasse then that is a welcome move as the state government has shown no inclination to redress our grievances," a Morcha leader said on condition of anonymity.
"The Centre has the right to intervene as they are also a signatory to the GTA memorandum of agreement," he said.
State Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya and Union minister Deepa Das Munshi said tonight Malakar had spoken to Morcha leaders "as per directive from the Congress leadership".
"Shankar Malakar was asked to talk to Morcha leaders by the Congress leadership to have an understanding of their problems," Deeps said. She said the AICC leaders "are aware of Malakar's overtures to Morcha leaders".
Bhattacharya said Malakar had spoken to him before speaking to Gurung. "Malakar is justifiably worried because 50,000 of his electorate will be affected if the problem erupts in the hills. This is why, we approved of his overtures to Morcha leaders," he said.