It's Ghani Khan versus Mamata

MALDA, APRIL 29. It's a hot day in Manikchawk in Malda district. The Congress MP, Mr. A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, is seated on a dais in Domhat in Manikchawk, waiting for the speaker, a lesser known functionary, to stop the harangue and step aside to let him work the crowd which has turned up just to hear him.

Suddenly, the mood on the dais shifts in tune with the changing expressions on Mr. Choudhury's visage. There is no doubt that the living legend of Malda, who, the Congress high command does not dare to rein in even in the face of extreme provocation, is angry - because at least two speakers before him have been foolish enough to refer to the Trinamool Congress supremo, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, her crowd-pulling capacity and her ``right'' decision to `return' to the Congress.

In a way, his anger is justified. Though he was the first one in West Bengal to have advocated an alliance with Ms. Banerjee at least a year ago, neither the Congress high command nor the Trinamool leader found it in order to take him into confidence last month when the two parties struck a deal. What turned him into a veritable foe of Ms. Banerjee was her unconcealed bid to wrest the Englishbazar seat from under his thumb for a Trinamool favourite, Mr. Krishnendu Chowdhury, a known opponent of the Malda MP. Besides Englishbazar, she bargained for two more and got them.

Interpreting Ms. Banerjee's act as designed to harm him, the 80- year-old Mr. Choudhury nominated his own candidate, Mr. Gautam Chakraborty, for the seat, ticking off the high command for what he described as its ``abject surrender'' to Ms. Banerjee.

Knowing him as she does, the Congress president, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, left him alone and this is one seat where the alliance is not in operation.

At meetings, where Congress workers make the mistake of talking about the alliance or mentioning Ms. Banerjee, Mr. Choudhury does not waste time to rubbish the alliance, his party bosses and, of course, Ms. Banerjee.

He turns to the crowd and speaks into the hand-held microphone. ``A lot of weighty people, I am told, are preparing to come to office (read Ms. Banerjee). As and when they do come in, I will tell them about your woes and see what can be done about them.'' The sarcasm is not lost on anyone.

Such meetings demonstrate that the Congress-Trinamool alliance in Malda, which has 11 Assembly seats, is pure fiction. If anything, the electoral battle in Malda, in the main, is confined between Mr. Choudhury and Ms. Banerjee. Wedged between the two, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which controls three seats, is waiting for an opportunity to improve its share.

The bone of contention is Englishbazar where the Congress sitting MLA, Mr. Chakraborty's strength is Mr. Choudhury. The BJP vice- chairman of the municipality, Mr. Gobindo Mondal, is the other contestant here. The buzz is: Mr.Chowdhury has struck a deal with the BJP to retain his seat.

For the Congress leader, retaining Englishbazar is top priority. ``I have never lost elections in Malda. I will win this election, too,'' he comments. However, he is taking no chances. Every day, he travels a few hundred km to campaign for the Congress candidates.

Pleas from the Trinamool candidates to campaign for them fall into deaf ears. ``Can you show me a single district in Bengal where the alliance is working? Look at Midnapore, North 24- Parganas and other crucial districts. Those who talk of alliance are a bunch of idiots,'' he says.

Judged in perspective, it is not without reason that Ms. Banerjee has declined Ms. Gandhi's offer to address a joint meeting in the district.

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