Pitted against BJP's S S Ahluwalia who has the backing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, Trinamool Congress nominee Baichung Bhutia said the real issue in Darjeeling hills was not a separate state, but lack of development.
"If people have no jobs, if they remain half-starved and if their children are not getting proper education, they are bound to fill the streets and agitate," Bhutia, former captain of India's national football team, told PTI.
"The real issue in the hills is development for all. Since only a government can bring development to a region, it is the Trinamool Congress which is running the state government can do it," Bhutia explained.
Bhutia's appeal for support from the Morcha was earlier spurned by its chief Bimal Gurung. Bhutia called up Gurung, whom he addressed as 'daju', on March 10 seeking his support even though the TMC had earlier ruled out partnering with the Morcha in the hills.
Bhutia is not happy at being called an 'outsider' by the Morcha and said if he were indeed so, so were the sitting Darjeeling MP Jaswant Singh of the BJP and present nominee of that party S S Ahluwalia.
"I am never an outsider. I have always stood by the people of the hills in their time of distress, be it an earthquake or any happy occasion. I have always been there," he argued.
Bhutia's nomination by the TMC has raised eyebrows in many quarters with doubts expressed over whether a successful player can make a successful public representative too.
Asked about this, Bhutia bristled: "Nobody is born a politician. Neither Narendra Modi nor Rahul Gandhi were born as politicians. Just like a game of sports, a politician too has to learn politics over time. I personally feel successful sportspersons can also make good politicians."
Explaining his argument, the footballer said a player is successful when he toils hard to perform on the field and to win the respect and love of the people. Likewise, a politician too can gain the trust of the people by performing sincerely and tirelessly.
"I think a sportsperson can use his credibility as an individual to bring in change in politics which is losing its credibility," he said.
Bhutia maintained that his more-than-a-decade-long career as a sportsperson had prepared him as a team man and handed him the ability to keep his head cool in tense situations.
"Politics too is a team game just like football where you need to keep your head cool. I think my experience as a sportperson will help me to better deal with pressure situations and challenges."
Coming back to his development plank, Bhutia alleged that the sitting BJP MP from the hills, Jaswant Singh, had not done enough for the people in the region.
He said that the Morcha was playing dirty politics by making false promises, but expressed confidence that "this time it is going to lose this match".
Bhutia said there was no question of his defeat in the April 17 election and said that even if he lost, he would stick to politics and work for the development of the hills.
The GJM, which plays a decisive role in Darjeeling politics, has been at loggerheads with the state government led by the Trinamool Congress over the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland.