Relegated to a supporting role, will the TMC catamaran sink or sail in Darjeeling?

Mann ko kura man mai chha,” said Prem Kumari Lama, 62, in between selling lollipops to a toddler at her stall near Darjeeling’s Mirik Lake. “I’m holding my cards close to my chest.”

At no cost will Prem Kumari drop any hints as to who she will be voting for in the assembly election. “Nobody will tell you anything,” a bystander remarked. “It’s a small place and everyone knows everyone. There are so many parties and we know them [supporters] all. If one gets to know that we are supporting someone else, it will be really awkward.”

This secret “mann ko kura”, or inner thoughts, is set to make all the difference as the hills of Darjeeling gear up for a rather unusual election for three assembly seats on April 17. “It’s quite something,” said Munish Tamang, national working president of the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh and an academic at Delhi University. “Unpredictable, for the first time in the hills.”

LB Rai, the chairman of the Mirik municipality and district president (hill area) of the Trinamool Congress, agreed.

“In my entire career, I have not seen an election like this one,” he said, referring to the multi-party contest in the hills and the unpredictability of the outcome. “There was a time, not so long ago, when everything depended on the leader from the hill party and people voted on predictable lines. It was more like a single-party rule. First it was [Subhash] Ghisingh and then it was Bimal Gurung who decided everything for the people. Now, people have many choices and their votes can go either way.”

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