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There can’t be a better exhibit to gauge the Congress’s kismet in Bengal than the keystone called Malda—home turf of the late party strongman A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, or Barkat-da, who lorded over this northern political property for more than four decades. His writ was so large that even chief minister Jyoti Basu, at the peak of the Left Front rule, suggested taking Barkat-da’s “consent” for a Ganga water-sharing treaty that Bangladesh was pushing for. Well, that was in 1996.
This summer, there would be no Choudhury or Basu. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has stormed into the Congress’s once impregnable fortress; the BJP too has made inroads. And it looks likely that it will be even more difficult to defend the turf as the Congress and the Left Front—unlike the understanding that Barkat-da and Basu had—have failed to stitch an alliance in Bengal. They could not agree on the number of seats each would share. In Malda North, Raiganj, Jangipur and Murshidabad seats, won by the Congress and the CPI(M) last time, Trinamool has nominated sitting legislators and MPs who had switched over from the Congress.
However, the never-say-die Congress optimism still flies high in Malda and Murshidabad. Even analysts believe the Congress will spring a surprise, bagging at least five seats in this bastion. “The minority community that makes up a sizeable chunk of voters will vote for the Congress and not the Trinamool or the BJP,” says journalist-analyst Sukharanjan Dasgupta, who has been following the Congress in Bengal for the past five decades. The north and central Bengal districts are dominated by minorities—51.27 per cent and 66.27 per cent of the population in Malda and Murshidabad are Muslims, according to the 2011 Census.
And then the Congress can count on its ace: the Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury factor. The former Union minister has managed to keep the Trinamool house divided for decades in Murshidabad, says senior journalist Sudip Roychoudhury. “The Trinamool changed its district president several times to quell infighting which, I would say, is a Chowdhury ploy.” Then again, the Congress under Adhir’s leadership keeps both maulanas and pujaris happy, exactly the way Mamata does in most of Bengal. “The politics of using religion works tactically well in a Muslim-majority district,” Roychoudhury says.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta