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September 28, 1999


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Constituency/ Malda

Ghani Khan Chowdhury may meet his match, at last

After making it to the Lok Sabha six times in a row from this Congress stronghold, Barkat da -- as A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury is known among his supporters -- is treading a tough terrain this time due to resistance at the ''grass roots''.

At the root of the problem is the Trinamul factor which has become relevant for the first time in this north Bengal constituency on the Indo-Bangla border. Though the state Congress president is pitted against rivals whom he has handed convincing defeats in the past, an uncertainty hangs over his electoral fate due to a recent division in the ranks of the Congress in his home district.

During the 1998 elections the Congress in Malda remained undivided despite the emergence of Trinamul Congress led by Mamta Banerjee at the state level. As a mark of respect to the veteran Congress leader Banerjee had decided not to oppose Khan Chowdhury, overlooking her party's alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, the relationship between the two leaders soured over the past one year, leading to a split in the Congress in Malda with a chunk of partymen and supporters switching loyalties to the Trinamul Congress. In a multi-cornered contest for the October 3 election, Khan Chowdhury's main rivals are CPI-M district secretary Sailen Sarkar and BJP unit vice president Muzaffar Khan. The BJP candidate is supported by the Trinamul Congress.

Khan Chowdhury, who registered six successive wins in Malda between 1980 and 1998, had worsted Sarkar in the 1991 and the 1996 elections while Muzaffar khan had finished third in a battle of ballots against him in 1998.

The Trinamul factor has adversely affected the Congress leader's electoral prospects this time. The jolt is more pronounced in the town where most of the Congress municipal councillors have left the party to join Banerjee's bandwagon and are campaigning for the BJP candidate.

District Congress president Sabitri Mitra, however, strongly denies any impact of the split in the party. ''The image and charisma of Barkat da is good enough to win the people's hearts in Malda,'' she says emphatically.

Endorsing her viewpoint Omar Ali, a shop keeper in Sujapur, says, ''He is like a Pir (saint) to us. Whatever development has taken place in our district is because of him.''

Even CPI-M nominee Sailen Sarkar concedes that Khan Chowdhury had a special place among the people in Malda. ''There is no denying the fact that his past performance has so far polled votes for the Congress even as the party has not been in power for a long time.''

The Trinamul's inroad into a section of traditional Congress votebank is palpable nonetheless. Sailen Roy, a school teacher at Habibpur, blames the Congress for a number of voters shifting loyalties to the BJP, the Trinamul ally, this time. ''We do not have any bad blood with Ghani saheb. It is the sorry state of the Congress that forced us to leave the party,'' he said.

Former chairman of English Bazar municipality Krishnendu Roy, once a close aide of Khan Chowdhury, said he led the exodus to the Trinamul because of the ''incorrigible'' policies of the Congress at the national as well as state level. ''Despite being admirers of Mamta we did not want to ditch Barkat da for he is synonymous with Malda. But no longer could we have afforded to remain with a party which has lost its base among the masses.''

The Trinamul Congress candidates had secured more than 45,000 votes in the panchayat elections in the district held in May last, which comes close to Khan Chowdhury's winning margin of 47,000 in the Lok Sabha elections last year.

However, Khan Chowdhury still exudes confidence on the basis of the past performance. ''I will not ask my voters to vote in favour of me. I have done something for Malda. I am sure they will remain by my side as ever before.''

With the BJP increasing its number of votes steadily in every election, party nominee Muzaffar Khan is also very hopeful about a breakthrough this time. Khan, who had polled more than 1.69 lakh votes to finish behind Khan Chowdhury and Jibon Moitra of the CPI-M in 1998, claimed that the party would garner an additional 1.5 lakh votes this time.

''The atmosphere is charged in favour of the BJP,'' he said. Even if Khan's statement is taken with a pinch of salt the fact remains that a sizeable section of voters in this constituency is looking for a change following a series of developments at the national level and some social realignment in the state. A considerable number of the Hindu voters appear to sympathise with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his party.

''We have seen both the Congress and the left parties. Now we would like to see a change,'' says Mrinal Haldar, a college student in English Bazar area.

Gobinda Pal, a rickshaw puller in Kaliacha, says for the first time he will change his allegiance in the coming election. ''Our condition has remained the same. Let us try for a change.''

But the situation cannot be easily assessed as a large section of Hindus are still either with the Congress or the CPI-M. A good number of voters in this flood-prone district also complained that the BJP candidate was an outsider and did not bother to visit the people during the last year's flood.

While the BJP had secured about 21 per cent votes as against 43 per cent and 36 per cent of the Congress and CPI-M respectively, a major swing in the Hindu vote can see the party pull off an upset in this election.

The main factors behind a section of voters rallying behind the BJP are said to be the Kargil conflict, a spate of reports of ISI sabotage and infiltration of Bangladeshis into India. ''How can we compromise with our national security,'' says Minati Roy, a housewife in Manikchak. ''I was a Congress voter till the last elections, but this time I would like to change my option.''

However, the voting pattern of the minority community, which constitutes 36 per cent of the 10,46,857-strong electorate of the constituency, could also be a deciding factor. CPI-M candidate Sarkar, who had given a scare to Khan Chowdhury in 1991 before losing by only 1820 votes, was confident about his victory this time with the help of a majority of Muslim voters ''who are feeling insecure following the BJP's activities and getting fed up with the imbecile Congress.''

Corroborating Sarkar's opinion, a noted doctor in the town narrated how he was maligned by a rumour spread by the saffron brigade that he had links with the ISI. ''We cannot trust a government run by those who indulge in hate campaign undermining a whole community,'' he said pleading anonymity.

Habibur Rahman, a school teacher in Habibpur, said the people from his community were subjected to suspicion only because of the propaganda by the BJP. ''They want us to be excommunicated for no fault of ours,'' said Sakina Bibi, a brick kiln help, who resides in Kaliachak.

While an en masse verdict of the minority community could make either the CPI-M or the Congress victorious, any split in this solid votebank would turn the tilt towards the BJP. As against the CPI-M claim, Khan Chowdhury was confident that the majority of Muslim votes would be cast in favour of the Congress ''because they know ours is the party which can protect them.''

The BJP also has some hopes of getting votes of the people from the minority community as its candidate claimed that a large number of Muslim youths were attending his election meetings.

Sensing a split in the Congress vote-bank and the mood of minority voters, the CPI-M has geared itself to score a victory. Holding area-based meetings, the party was making appeals even to the Congress supporters not to vote for a ''sinking party''. ''Our appeal to the voters is to exercise their franchise in favour of a secular and democratic party,'' Sarkar said.

The issue of development has become a major point in the electioneering this time. The CPI-M, striving hard to mobilise the women and young voters, is trying to project Sarkar as a man better placed to continue the process of development in the district as against an ageing Khan Chowdhury.

On the other hand, the Congress appears to be relying more on Khan Chowdhury's image of a go-getter.

The election campaign of the BJP centres around the Kargil conflict and Vajpayee's personal image.



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