“We are booking a big ground. Thirty thousand to forty thousand people will be there.” The palpable excitement in the voice of Sankar Malakar, who has been the Congress MLA from Siliguri’s Matigara-Naxalbari seat for the last decade, cannot be missed even on the phone.
Malakar, also the working president of the Congress in West Bengal, is preparing for former party president Rahul Gandhi’s first rally in the state this election season.
Gandhi will be in this constituency on April 14, after nearly half the election (four out of the eight phases) is over and with just a fortnight left for the campaign to end in the state.
“Rahul’s entry in Bengal will be very beneficial for us. Our voters and workers will be motivated. This helps our alliance with the Left and the ISF (Indian Secular Front) too. We are fighting against the Bijumal – that is the BJP plus the Trinamool (TMC), as the BJP is made up mostly of ex-TMC people. Muslims will be voting for our alliance in a big way,” Malakar told News18 on the phone.
Gandhi has so far stayed away from Bengal, where his party faces a paradoxical situation. The Congress is in alliance with the Left in this state, but is fighting it in Kerala, which voted in a single phase on April 6. Hence, Gandhi, who spearheaded the Congress campaign in Kerala, was expected to step into Bengal not before April 7.
Abbas Siddiqui, the leader of Congress ally ISF, in an interview with News18 earlier, had expressed disappointment over the 135-year-old party’s absence from the campaign.
“We know Rahul was busy with Assam and Kerala campaigns. But we are glad he will be here now,” Malakar said. With his seat polling on April 17 and the Election Commission (EC) extending the “campaign silence period” to 72 hours here after the Cooch Behar violence in the phase four of polling on April 10, Gandhi’s rally will be effectively held on the last day of the campaigning for the fifth phase.
Focus on Muslim Votes
A senior Bengal Congress leader said party candidates wanted Gandhi to hold at least a dozen rallies in the state, especially in Malda and Murshidabad districts, where Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Choudhary has a strong influence and the Muslim electorate is loyal towards the party.
Gandhi’s second rally on April 14 will be in Goalpokhar in Uttar Dinajpur district; nearly 74% of the population in this constituency are Muslims — one of the highest in the state.
“The TMC (ruling Trinamool Congress) has done nothing for the Muslims, who now realise it is only the Congress-Left-ISF alliance that can stop the BJP from coming to power in the state. We have big hopes from Rahul’s rally here,” Mohd Naseem Ahsen, the Congress candidate from Goalpokhar, told News18 on the phone.
The Congress last won this seat in 2006, when Deepa Dasmunsi, the wife of late Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, contested it. She is now camping in the constituency to drum up support for the Congress. “All candidates on my seat – of the BJP, TMC and Congress – are Muslims. The sitting TMC MLA for the last decade, Mohd Ghulam Rabbani, has failed Muslims. He is telling Muslims that ‘(chief minister) Mamata Banerjee will stop NRC (National Register of Citizens. So vote for her’…Rahul has pledged to stop NRC not just in Bengal but in the entire country. His rally will be beneficial for our entire district,” Ahsen said.
BJP Keeps A Close Watch
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not seem much bothered about Gandhi’s entry into the Bengal campaign, with at least two party leaders telling News18 that this would end up helping the BJP as the Congress-Left-ISF alliance will eat into the TMC’s vote share.
“We too have fielded some Muslim candidates in Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur districts. We are hoping that in the fight between the TMC and the (Congress) alliance on the Muslim-dominated seats, the BJP gets some advantage, by either winning the seat or by the alliance denying the seat to the TMC,” one of these BJP leaders said.
In fact, according to the BJP’s internal assessment, it is in a close fight in both Matigara-Naxalbari and the Goalpokhar seats, where Gandhi will campaign on April 14. The BJP so far has refrained from publicly criticising or taking on the Congress-Left-ISF alliance in Bengal, focusing its energies on the TMC instead. “It would be interesting to see who Rahul criticises more in his rallies — the BJP or the TMC,” the second leader said.