Sonia sets Bengal pitch

Malda, March 16: Sonia Gandhi today set the tone for the Congress's panchayat poll campaign in Bengal, highlighting what the UPA-II had done for voter segments courted by chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

"The Congress-led UPA is putting special focus on minorities and backward classes so they can taste the fruits of development. We have launched a special package for minorities in 90 districts across the country, including Malda," the Congress chief said at Narayanpur, around 5km from Malda town.

In a 10-minute speech at the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the Ghani Khan Chowdhury Institute of Engineering and Technology, she drew attention to what the Centre had done for minorities, backward classes, women and the rural population.

Sonia pointed out that she had fulfilled her promise of a technology institute, made in April 2008 while canvassing for the then panchayat polls. She also mentioned financial aid for madarsas, scholarships for Muslim girl students, UPA's flagship 100-day rural job scheme, and projects undertaken by the Maulana Azad Foundation.

"Under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA-II has taken up schemes for strengthening the economic and social structures," she said.

Mamata has also announced several schemes

and benefits for minorities and women, including tricky issues of land rights and ownership of houses as well as handover of bicycles.

Sonia's references to several central schemes for the urban and rural poor perked up state Congress leaders. "We can now go to the people and tell them about the role of the Centre in various schemes and how it is helping the state government," said Pradip Bhattacharya, the Bengal Congress chief.

The Trinamul Congress did not contest Sonia's statements on the central schemes but said the source of the money was the states.

State panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee said: "Nobody is disputing that these schemes are centrally funded. In some schemes, state provides matching grants. The Centre gives the money and the state implements it. From where does the Centre get the money? They collect it from the states, make projects and then tells the state to implement it."

Congress leaders felt Sonia's visit to Malda, along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was likely to benefit the Congress after the drubbing in the Englishbazar bypoll.

Singh said the Centre was focusing on development of engineering and tech institutes throughout the country. "Skill development is a priority in the 12th Plan. This institute will fulfil the demand for skilled hands in industry."

Local MLA and Bengal tourism minister Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury, who switched from the Congress to Trinamul, was the sole representative from the government to receive the leaders. "I told the Prime Minister and Soniaji that the chief minister had sent me to welcome them," Krishnendu said.

Both leaders visited Ghani Khan Chowdhury's grave in Kotwali and spent some time at the Khan Chowdhury residence. They were offered Mughlai dishes, sweets and fruit but had only coconut water, sources said.