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|February 18, 1998|
Ghani Khan towers over Malda, despite the CPI-M's best efforts
Congress stalwart A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury's domineering presence in this Lok Sabha constituency stands to test as he tries to retain the seat for the sixth time in a row.
Known more as a stronghold of the septuagenarian leader than a safe Congress seat, Malda, once the capital of Bengal, is all set to witness a multi-cornered electoral battle.
Ghani Khan Chowdhury, aka Barkatda, has virtually made the seat his monopoly since 1980.
Pitted against him are CPI-M nominee Jibon Moitra and the Bharatiya Janata Party's Muzaffar Khan -- both newcomers in the fray -- besides a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate and two Independents.
Regarded by many as the maker of modern Malda, Ghani Khan Chowdhury has the rare distinction of getting elected to the state assembly five times in a row, besides making it to the Lok Sabha as many times between 1980 and 1996.
He became Union minister for coal and power in 1980 and railway minister in 1982 in Indira Gandhi's government. Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 asked him to take over as Congress general secretary.
Despite being a member of an aristocratic family and a graduate from London, the candidate has considerable sway over a large section of the people in the district, thanks to his image as a go-getter. He was instrumental in initiating a number of developmental schemes in the district besides providing jobs to a huge number of unemployed youth.
Although he has been out of government since 1989, his past performance still counts with a large number of voters. Such is his image that even the BJP candidate seeks votes, pledging to fulfill Ghani Khan Chowdhury's unfinished agenda.
BJP campaigners also says its candidate from Malda will be included in the Union Cabinet once it came to power at the Centre; the development of the area, they say, would be on its priority list.
The CPI-M workers are optimistic too, following the party's decision to consider joining the government if the United Front came to power, says Marxist party district secretary Sailen Sarkar.
Ghani Khan Chowdhury appears unfazed and claims to have increased his votebase, with his campaign having already reached a crescendo.
While his main plank is a stable government at the Centre, he promises development of the area. "Everything will be done, just continue voting," he says. He is eyeing the floating votes which, he thinks, has drifted away from the CPI-M, the major partner of the ruling Left Front in the state.
He refuses to accept that the BJP, which cornered 10.43 per cent votes in 1996, has any special position in the district. Rather, he believes that the BJP's decision to field Muzaffar Khan will antagonise a section of people who would have otherwise voted for that party.
He is credited with keeping the party almost intact in the district, with even Mamata Banerjee loyalists refusing to abandon the Congress.
Although it faces a formidable opponent, the CPI-M is optimistic and is trying to attract the votes it secured in 1991 when its candidate lost to Barkatda by only 1,820 votes.
Sailen Sarkar, the CPI-M candidate twice earlier, says his party which bagged 38.28 per cent votes as against 48.78 per cent by the Congress in 1996, has launched a campaign to increase its vote share by at least ten per cent.
Attributing that debacle to organisational problems, including sabotage by a section of party leaders, Sarkar claims the CPI-M has overcome those difficulties with the expulsion of a number of leaders.
CPI-M candidate Jibon Moitra, who headed the party in the district for more than a decade, is known to be a dedicated activist with good organisational skills.
Sarkar says the CPI-M strategy will try and snatch votes both from the Congress and the BJP by rectifying organisational defects and vigorous campaigning.
The Marxists project Ghani Khan Chowdhury as a tired old man, coping with health problems and "a long-time non-performer."
On the other hand, BJP candidate Muzaffar Khan, who is also the state party vice-president and all-India secretary, tells voters that the Congress and CPI-M have a secret understanding. He is hopeful that the BJP, which won about 18 per cent votes in 1991, would do better this time.
Bordering Bangladesh and adjoining Bihar, the constituency, which has a 16,05,694-strong electorate, goes to the polls on Sunday, February 22. It has a sizeable chunk of 40 per cent Muslim voters, the only constituency in East India to have more than 20 per cent Muslims as part of the electorate.
Congress candidates represent six of the seven assembly segments of Adaidanga, Englishbazar, Habibpur, Kaliachak, Malda, Manikchak and Sujapur; the CPI-M has the other one.
UNI in Malda
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