June 28, 2020
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Captain Quirk’s Dilemma

Congress honchos have found Ghani Khan irascible, but they see him as a necessary evil now

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Captain Quirk’s Dilemma
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Low on charisma, short of temper and brimming with idiosyncrasies, Ataul Barkat Ataul Ghani Khan Choudhury’s beetle-browed, glowering presence has been integral to West Bengal politics for four decades.

Unpredictable, arrogant, hard-of-hearing and arthritic, the 73-year-old barrister is still the only mass leader the Congress can boast of in West Bengal. The party may look perilously close to its last gasp but ‘Barkatda’ remains a significant political force. And now, his proposed alliance with the Trinamul Congress threatens to change the face of West Bengal politics.

"Our heroes like Indira Gandhi have disappeared from the political scene. The Congress has become weak," Barkatda lamented after his meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi last week. On the previous day, he’d told her she hadn’t a prayer of reviving the party and ousting the Left Front in West Bengal without Mamata Banerjee. Sonia, who counts the Left as one of her few friends outside the Congress, was, however, reluctant to accept the idea of taking on the Left in the first place.

Critics charged him with compromising the Congress stand on secularism by playing footsie with a BJP ally, but Barkatda’s secular credentials are rather better-established than those of his party. He’s been a mass, not just a minority, leader. His bedside table is a pantheon which has pictures of Swami Vivekanand and Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Indeed, his services to the Ramakrishna Mission are a matter of record. He donated Rs 15 crore to their TB hospital in Ranchi, involved them in flood relief in Malda in the early 1980s and named a train after Swami Vivekanand. His other idol is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and he’s considered a disciple of the late B.C. Roy-post-Independence architect of the Congress in Bengal.

So, what impelled a true-blue Congressman like him to throw in his lot with a chronic dissenter like Mamata Banerjee, particularly after she went over to the BJP-led NDA? A lust for chief ministership, say his detractors. Denied a shot at the top job by the unshakeable Jyoti Basu for more than two decades, Barkatda finally sees a window of opportunity opening up. Says Congress Lok Sabha chief whip Priyaranjan Das Munshi: "He’s an opportunist." But his supporters claim he is in sync with the anti-Left mood of the electorate and realises that Mamata stands a far better chance of dislodging Basu than the enervated Congress.

Ghani Khan Choudhury is the only Congress leader from West Bengal who has never lost his seat. Having carefully nurtured Malda, he is regarded invincible. During his stewardship as power and then railways minister (1980 to 1984), thousands of Malda denizens were given jobs. Avers Choudhury: "Unemployment is a horror. I created a lakh of jobs for the West Bengal youth."

The bureaucracy, which bore the brunt of his populism, saw it rather differently. In his bull-headed style, he brushed their objections-and all norms-aside. Looking after his own, he says "was a lesson I learnt from Indira Gandhi". His largesse to West Bengal in the form of power, irrigation and railway projects earned him the sobriquet "Mr Development", recalls long-time aide Sadhan Mandal. In that sense, he’s a role model for Mamata Banerjee.

For all his anti-CPI(m) vitriol, his personal rapport with Jyoti Basu is excellent. Political observers recall the two sharing a cup of tea in the West Bengal coastal resort of Digha, shortly after Choudhury had threatened to throw Basu into the Bay of Bengal. They have witnessed the two embrace warmly. Basu’s assistance to Barkat when a family dispute (with his estranged brother) exploded into violence at his plush Malda residence is common knowledge.

Like Basu, Siddhartha Shankar Ray and several others, he’s also a member of West Bengal’s "barristocracy" and shares its taste for the good things in life. Following the fashion among scions of zamindar families-critics say the title "Khan Choudhury" was earned by his forefathers through assiduous apple-polishing of Malda’s British rulers-he studied law in London and then came back to join politics. He acquired an English wife, from whom he is now estranged. She now lives abroad with their children-curiously enough, with his estranged brother. The Who’s Who lists him as a bachelor.

Choudhury’s relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been rather erratic. During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi picked him up and later projected him on the national scene. Sanjay’s aide and Doon School buddy Kamal Nath brought Choudhury to his attention when Sanjay was looking for a counter to the then West Bengal chief minister, S.S. Ray. He couldn’t dislodge Ray, but Choudhury remained a faithful acolyte until Sanjay’s death in 1980. Indira Gandhi trusted him implicitly-at least once entrusting him with a great deal of money-and twice sent him to the United Nations, first to assist the admission of Bangladesh into the world fraternity and then to settle a water dispute with the same country.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Choudhury was dropped as railways minister and demoted to programme implementation by Rajiv Gandhi. He became a critic of the then prime minister. His public denunciation of Rajiv-"He is not a vote-catcher"-made headlines. The West Bengal press avidly recorded his characterisation of Rajiv as a pilot who didn’t understand politics.

Following this, he was dropped from the cabinet and made AICC general secretary. Rajiv’s habit of calling late-night meetings of the cwc irritated him and he slept through quite a few-an aide recalls that his political rivals managed to substitute their list of assembly candidates with his while he snoozed. In 1987, his anger against Rajiv grew when close aide Savitri Mitra was denied an assembly ticket (she is now an MLA, considered part of the pro-Mamata camp in the CLP).

He did not quit the Congress, proving impervious to the blandishments of V.P. Singh. His intimates credit former WBPCC chief and trusted lieutenant Somen Mitra with keeping Barkatda in the fold. He doesn’t lack political heirs-his sister Rubinoor and (another) brother Abu Hasnat Choudhury are both members of the West Bengal assembly-but no one is closer to him than Somen, who has been with him for over three decades. Having stuck with the party at the worst of times, Barkatda would be uncomfortable outside it, Sonia Gandhi has been playing on this.

That leaves Barkatda in a bind; he’s under pressure from his own workers to structure a grand alliance with Mamata but Sonia has made it clear that a formal tie-up with the Trinamul is difficult unless Mamata says goodbye to the NDA. But the firebrand minister for railways isn’t inclined to do so. Scarcely less temperamental than Choudhury, she went into a sulk when he told Sonia that the state Congress would have no truck "direct or indirect" with the BJP.

Barkatda is not the best of negotiators. His attitudes are feudal-he’s been known to tell an audience that it’s a herd of sheep-and can’t digest disagreement. He doesn’t get along with other West Bengal leaders like Pranab Mukherjee and Das Munshi, both of whom aren’t particularly keen on the grand alliance.

Small wonder then that the easily riled Ghani Khan Choudhury flung away mikes of aggressive TV reporters when asked-for the nth time-about the BJP’s role in the proposed grand alliance. Hands shaking violently, face apoplectic, he roared: "Why do you irritate me with such questions? Go away!". They did. But Barkatda’s dilemma remains.

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