Keshpur survives, surrenders to fate and comrade
Sour harvest signal for mini-jot
Split wide open for the Left
Front skids on rebel hotbed
Crown sits uneasy on Kandi king
Trinamul puts letter logjam in PM court
Mamata rides train to Digha
PDS ropes in Chandra Shekhar
Security row
Rs 500 for mother, hope of a good home for baby

Keshpur, April 27: 
A flag fluttering from a tall bamboo mast in the village centre marks this out as red territory. In the villages on either side of the road from Midnapore there are red flags fluttering everywhere.

There is nary a doubt on who the victor of the turf war in Keshpur is.

In Jamshed Ali Bhavan, the CPM zonal committee office in Keshpur Bazaar, Intaj Ali identifies villages from the names of their “commanders”.

A farmer, waiting for a lift to Midnapore town, says he can stay in his village because he “surrendered”. He uses the English word “surrender”.

Surrendered? To whom?

“Comrade Taslim.”

That must be Panchami village, says Intaj Ali. He tries to identify the man who spoke to a reporter.

In a hamlet of mostly Muslim potato farmers just north of the bazaar, an old man says everything is peaceful now. “The lal party is everywhere. What do you want me to say? You will go away just now, I have to be here.”

If it were not known that Keshpur is the setting for a localised if prolonged political skirmish, the language of its residents would give the impression that they live under army occupation. Unless the tables are turned on the CPM and violence peaks again, there is only one way Keshpur can vote.

Keshpur today is grist for the anti-Communist campaign — the sort that swept the globe in the years following Stalin. One story had it that people in the late Soviet leader’s village in Georgia voted for him with such fervour that he polled more than 100 percent. “They loved him so much that many voted for him twice,” Stalin’s apologists are known to have explained.

Nandarani Dal, Keshpur’s sitting CPM MLA, is set to win handsomely. The party has “captured” so much ground since it trailed by 16,000 votes in the Panskura bypoll last year, that its cadre have been asked to be prudent during the Assembly poll.

The Keshpur constituency has an electorate of 1.55 lakh spread over 650 villages. Voters will exercise their right in 199 booths. Intaj Ali says that in last year’s bypolls, Trinamul supporters had “captured” 79 booths. These “outsiders” and “antisocials” have since been driven out and villagers inspired by party cadre will not allow them to re-enter.

In the Trinamul office in Midnapore town, Mohammad Rafique — Mamata’s “Hero of Keshpur” and the Trinamul candidate in neighbouring Garbeta East — says his men are being branded antisocials.

“You just come here on the 10th (election day) and see what happens,” he says. “It is not going to be a cakewalk for the CPM.”

Sometime soon, somehow, anyhow, Trinamul activists swear, their supporters will return home and vote for Mamata Banerjee’s candidate Rajani Dolui. Fearful villagers in Keshpur though have discovered something that is more important than elections: survival.“What vote? We will vote for that fence if we are asked to,” says Rukshana Begum in Ichhaipur village before she hurries indoors.


Malda, April 27: 
Malda was dreaming of a fruitful mango harvest in 2001. But not any more; Malda hasn’t seen raindrops since last September and, if it doesn’t rain within a week, the promise of a bounty will remain unfulfilled.

Malda held a lot of promise for a grand alliance against the Left Front too. A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury was the first to propose the idea of an anti-Left mahajot; the BJP, including its most visible face in Bengal and a son of the Malda soil, Tapan Sikdar, used to back up the idea.

But this dream too seems to have turned sour, as sour-tasting as the mangoes will be if there’s no rain. The two proponents of the mahajot are now two of the most virulent critics of Mamata Banerjee who still remains the symbol of anti-Left struggle.

So will the harvest for the Congress-Trinamul mini-jot be as dismal as that of the mango in Malda? Voters are clammed up; most of them talk of panchayat-level corruption even when they can be wheedled into talking and don’t seem taken up with the Trinamul slogan of “bodley deen, paltey deen”. But there’s logic in it: Malda’s voters have been voting more against than for the Left in the last few elections and, if they were to take Mamata’s slogan very seriously, they may well end up helping keep the Left in power for another term.

But Malda’s Opposition leaders — from the Congress, Trinamul and the BJP — seem to be ahead of the voters in working for a change in favour of the Left in Malda. How else does one explain the sudden change of heart of Ghani Khan who now — not very cryptically — says “Manush asha kore, bidhata muchki hashe (Man proposes, god disposes)” when reporters ask him about Mamata’s chances of becoming chief minister? How else does one explain the Malda BJP’s targeting of Mamata — and not the Left or the Congress — as its main enemy?

How else does one explain even Trinamul’s decision to insist on a candidate in Englishbazar which has a popular outgoing Congress MLA in Gautam Chakraborty?

The Opposition has made the anti-Left voter’s task difficult. Whom does he vote to carry the battle to the Left brigade?

The voting pattern of Malda’s anti-Left voter has been interesting. If he is from a village and doesn’t really like the idea of the Left returning to Writers’, he has voted for Ghani Khan’s family. If he’s from the town, he has started shifting allegiance to Trinamul. That shouldn’t, apparently, present any problem except in Englishbazar: with most rebels withdrawing from the fray, anti-Left and non-BJP voters seem to have an easier task.

But if Malda’s anti-Left voter has been living very close to the Bangladesh border, he’s taken up with the idea of the BJP taking on the CPM. The Congress has withdrawn its rebel from Gajol in favour of Trinamul which in turn has returned the compliments. But the unseemly fracas between the natural allies has taken its toll on the spirit of the average Congress or Trinamul worker; Congress activists don’t have any problem in sharing walls with the CPM cadre but wouldn’t be seen sharing a cup of tea with a Trinamul activist.

All this has, however, made the CPM’s task easy. If it is now dreaming of winning Ghani Khan bastions like Englishbazar, it’s only because of the number of choices the anti-Left voter has been offered and the free passes he has got to see the mini-jot-mahajot drama.


Malda, April 27: 
There is one Congress poster in Malda which has warmed the hearts of CPM comrades. “We do not support the alliance.”

It is no coincidence that the poster has appeared in a part of Malda which is within the Englishbazar constituency.

This is the only constituency in Bengal where the fragility of the Congress-Trinamul alliance has been exposed as nowhere else with a candidate each from both parties in the alliance gunning for each other with the symbols of their respective parties.

This constituency also reflects a peculiarly “Trinamulian” dilemma. Mamata’s candidate Krishnendu Narayan Choudhury is the chairman of the Englishbazar Municipality; one of his main opponents is BJP candidate Gobinda Mandal who is the vice-chairman of the same municipality. The warring parties, however, have stayed together to keep the board afloat.

Mandal is no pushover either. His party got about 33,000 votes in the last Lok Sabha elections from this constituency. If he gets even half that figure this time, he will have done enough to push Mamata Banerjee away from the chief minister’s chair by one seat.

But Mandal needn’t bother. Choudhury has a significant following among urban people who comprise about half the constituency’s voters. If he gets even 400 votes on an average from each of the 25 wards of the municipality of which he is chairman, he, too, will have done enough to push his leader, Mamata, away from the chief minister’s chair by one seat.

Sounds strange but is true. Because if Choudhury wins, Congress MLA Gautam Chakraborty has to lose. That would mean one seat less for Mamata’s alliance.

Chakraborty knows what he’s up against. “Yes, there is bound to be some division of anti-Left votes,” he admits. “But the anti-Left votes have increased significantly since 1996,” is what he is telling himself to keep his chin up.

Chakraborty is the perfect public relations man — he is perhaps the only MLA to move around unaccompanied in his constituency. He is pulling out all stops. In Malda, that means pulling out A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury from his Kotwali residence and making him hit the roads.

But for all that, the candidate most likely to pip all others at the post is Samar Roy of the CPM, a former Coordination Committee leader. With a three-way division of anti-Left votes, he may have a lot to crow about on May 13.


Murshidabad, April 27: 
Burdwan may be the home territory of PDS founding father Saifuddin Chowdhury and South 24-Parganas may be the only district where the party has netted a former CPM district chief. But to see what has really happened to the CPM and its partners such as the RSP and Forward Bloc, one has to come all the way to Murshidabad. Here, only the erosion on the banks of the Ganga would perhaps correctly mirror the erosion faced by the Left Front.

It remains to be seen whether this erosion from the party cadre is matched by a similar erosion in the votebank as well but, if the magnitude of the latter is even a fourth of the former, then those who’ve split the front down the middle will have reasons to be happy.

The Murshidabad Assembly constituency in the heart of the district is perhaps the finest example of the front’s predicament. Here, even by conservative estimates, more than a third of the Left cadre is working overtime to take the PDS candidate, Mojammel Haque, to the Assembly.

The situation for the Front isn’t better in Barwan. Ashis Raychoudhury, who’s now fighting the Left candidate, has been an RSP member for 33 years; 12 of those years, he was the district secretary.

In Hariharpara, the sitting CPM MLA, another Mojammel Haque, is the PDS candidate this time. His former colleagues spewed venom on Haque. “He joined the PDS as he knew he wouldn’t get a ticket. The party is full of self-seeking leaders,” says district CPM secretary Madhu Bag.

But the PDS brushes aside the criticism and says it is ready to spoil the Left broth throughout the district. The party is hopeful of putting up a strong fight in Jangipur as well. Its confidence rests on the fact that its candidate, Md Ghiasuddin, has been a CPM district committee member and a leader of the school teachers’ and farmers’ struggle in the district.

The PDS is fighting seven other seats but the bane of any new-born party — the lack of resources — is taking its toll on the party’s prospects. “If Mamata Banerjee was astute enough, she would have channelised some of her party’s funds to us,” an aide of Raychoudhury said. “We know enough about the Left to hurt its prospects significantly in at least 70 seats,” he explained.

Another of Raychoudhury’s worries is the symbol his party will get. He has asked for the twin-candle from the list of floating symbols he was shown. “Two candles are just more visible than a single object,” he explains but doesn’t forget to add that the candles are going to help during campaigning as well: “They will symbolise the need for light after 24 years of Left misrule that has pushed the state into darkness.”

Of course, there’s another constant worry: the regular threats and attacks he and his partymen are facing from the CPM. But the man who’s not afraid of taking on the concerted might of the Front is mortally afraid of lighting up in front of his wife, Swapna.

“Let’s see what we can do,” he says, trying to look through the ring of smoke he sends up from the cigarette he lights up after getting into a car that will take him into CPM territory once again.

But it’s not only he who’s waiting to see what he can do. There are others — Mamata and Adhir Choudhury, for example.


Kandi, April 27: 
Claim to fame

The king of Kandi! You know, the royal scion who has never lost an election here. He’s won seven times.

His durbar

A dusty and cobwebbed room in the crumbling, ill-maintained and desolate family palace which speaks of a grand past and no future. No one lives here — family stays in Calcutta and his son studies in Cambridge.

Who’s he fighting

Dramatist and CPI leader Chandan Sen. Congressmen have already started saying that Sen, an outsider, is the Left Front’s chandaner tip for Atish.

His calling card

My forefathers have built a hospital, temples and a school.

His opponent’s calling card

What has Atish done?

Why? He’s been a leader...

Before captaining the fractured Congress in the Assembly, he captained the Presidency College cricket team. Some also say he captained the CPM’s B-Team, which was the Congress before allying with Mamata.

Eats, sleeps and breathes...

How to win in the shadow-boxing with Adhir Choudhury. If Atish is king of Kandi, Adhir is the monarch of Murshidabad. And the monarch is angry at losing seats to Trinamul that he would have won for Congress. Will he sink Sinha?

So, he can’t do without...

Adhir Choudhury. Has called up Choudhury to seek his support. “He has promised to support me,” says Sinha without smile and conviction. The talk may have helped as Choudhury didn’t put up an Independent candidate. But there’s still talk he might throw his weight behind the Left or the PDS candidate.

Could have done without...

The seat distribution between Congress and Trinamul, which, he admits, is ridiculous. “I can’t go to Suti or Jangipur as I am embarrassed. We’d already started campaigning for the sitting Congress MLAs when the seats were given to Trinamul,” he explains.

Deja vu

His first taste of politics was in 1969; he campaigned for granduncle Jagadish Sinha, who was a rebel against the official Congress nominee. The rebel won. Bad omen, Mr Sinha, isn’t it?


Calcutta, April27: 
The Trinamul Congress today reiterated that it will not immediately send a copy of the resolution clarifying its stand on severing all links with the NDA to the Speaker.

Party spokesman and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay said the decision on quitting the Union ministry and the NDA had been sent to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

“We have already sent it to the Prime Minister as he is the leader of the House and he should inform the Speaker. However, we are looking into parliamentary rules and norms. If required, we will send it to the Speaker after the Bengal elections are over,” Bandopadhyay said.

Bandopadhyay distributed Mamata’s letter to Vajpayee, written on March 15. “All-India Trinamul Congress has unanimously resolved that in the present circumstances we are left with no alternative but to leave the NDA,” the letter says.

The Congress today washed its hands of the Trinamul infighting calling it the internal matter of its ally. It also denied that it ever sought a letter from Mamata to the Speaker.

Nath denied reports that the leadership was insisting on Trinamul sending a letter to Speaker, G.M.C. Balayogi. “It is absolutely false. Nobody, neither me nor Congress president Sonia Gandhi has asked Mamata to write a letter,” he said.

Nath said it was Ajit Panja who had been writing to Mamata and the Speaker. He, however, refused to comment on the Panja-Mamata row. “It is their internal matter. We will not like to make a comment,” he said.

“If a letter was the condition for an alliance, I would have demanded it when the Congress started negotiating with Trinamul to jointly contest the Bengal polls,” Nath said.

Trinamul has, however, taken exception to rebel MP Ajit Panja’s letter to the Speaker. He had requested that a seat in the House be allotted to him “within the NDA in accordance with my seniority and experience”.

“We will take expert opinion whether it was proper for Panja to write such a letter where we have already clarified that we have dissociated ourselves from the NDA,” Bandopadhyay said.

The Trinamul spokesman also said that there is absolutely no cloud over Mamata and Sonia’s s joint election meetings on May 3 and May 4 in the state.

“She (Sonia) is eager to hold joint rallies with Mamata. We, however, have decided that no joint election rally will be held in Malda where there has been no seat adjustment in one seat, Englishbazar,” Bandopadhyay said.

However, Nath claimed there was no controversy on the candidate for the Englishbazar constituency as a Congress-Trinamul candidate was fighting the BJP there.

State Congress vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya said Sonia was expected to address election meetings at eight places. She is likely to attend rallies at Kharagpur, Burdwan, Ranaghat, Srirampore, Behrampore, Malda, Raigunj and Cooch Behar.


Ramnagar (Midnapore), April 27: 
Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee today sought to woo the electorate here by touching its softest spot —- the much awaited Digha-Tamluk rail link.

“You have seen me work on the project. Trains are already moving up to Bajkul. Within a couple of months trains will start rolling in to Digha. There is no force on earth which can stop my dream project,” she said.

Mamata addressed a modest gathering of around 10,000 in the vast RSA Maidan this afternoon, where processions from Contai, Bajkul, Digha, Paniparul and Egra had converged. She was scheduled to hold the meeting at noon but had to postpone it to 2.30 pm as the ground was empty.

Standing in the scorching heat, Mamata appeared concerned about the low turn out.

Local leaders Sisir Adhikary and Akhil Giri could not bring more than 10,000 people. The apologetic leaders said farmers were busy harvesting paddy.

“Even then there would have been more people had the CPM not prevented buses and lorries from coming to the rally ground.” they said.

“Old Digha is subsiding. The Left Front has no plans about it. We will protect Dr. B.C. Roy’s dream project from extinction, if we come to power,” Mamata said, adding that the Congress-Trinamul alliance is the only answer to achieve development in Bengal. The crowd burst into a spontaneous applause and joined Mamata in her slogan of bodley deen, paltey deen, ebaar pala bodoler pala (bring about a change. Now is the time for a change).

Mamata was speaking from a spotless white podium flanked by Adhikari and Giri.

Realising that the Tamluk-Digha link is one of the major factors in this election, she came down heavily on the Left Front government and how they “tried to prevent her dream project”.

“See these bundles of letters that I wrote to the chief minister complaining how his men are trying to prevent my dream project of the Digha-Tamluk rail link. I got no answer. Still I fought on and on and finally got it done. Laxman Seth of Haldia even wrote a letter to me asking me to consult local panchayats to complete the project but I did not care,” she said.

Mamata’s assurance that the rail link will help traders move their goods to Calcutta was also greeted with shouts of cheer.

Rabi Mardania, a peasant, was jubilant. “I will be able to market my produce in Calcutta and other places once the project is complete.”

Swapan Nasker, a daily wage labourer working on the Digha-Tamluk rail project, wore a smile to say that he is ensured of two meals a day working at the project.

Mamata said: “We will employ 5 lakh youths immediately after coming to power. I have not visited Writers’ Buildings since I was thrown out from there nine years ago. I will be able to enter the Red building with my head held high if I get your blessings.”

Women outnumbered the men in today’s rally.

Mamata also attended meetings at Balighai, Itaberia and Narayangarh.


Calcutta, April 27: 
Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar will campaign in the state for Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS).

PDS president Saifuddin Chowdhury told reporters today that Chandra Shekhar will address rallies in Hooghly, Burdwan, Bankura and South 24-Parganas for three days from May 2.

“Chandra Shekhar will also address a rally at former chief minister Jyoti Basu’s constituency, Satgachhia, on May 4. He will attend a rally at Hirapur where dissident CPM leader Dilip Das is contesting as an Independent,” he said.

Chowdhury today released the common minimum programme of the Secular Democratic Front which is fighting the May 10 polls along with the PDS.

The other constituents of the front are Bahujan Rashtriya Party, Janata Party (Paschimbanga), Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya), Marxist Forward Bloc , R.P.I and Jana Unnayan Mancha.

Releasing the programme, Chowdhury alleged that the CPM was trying to “terrorise” many of their candidates in the districts and they will lodge an official complaint with the chief electoral officer tomorrow.


Calcutta, April27: 
While Mamata Banerjee sticks to her decision to have no security ring around her, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is insistent that she must have one.

“She has to abide by whatever the Election Commission says,” Bhattacharjee pointed out at Writers’ Buildings today. Asked whether the state will provide security to her, Bhattacharjee said the home secretary will have to go by the chief electoral officer’s instructions.

CPM state secretary Anil Biswas said: “She has been provided Z-category security by the Centre and she no business refusing it.” He said her action was a “meaningless stunt” before the elections.

Trinamul leader Pankaj Banerjee met the chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen but did not raise the issue of Mamata’s security. Banerjee said after the meeting that Mamata had decided to forsake official protection as she felt her supporters were insecure, too.

Sen is tightlipped about the issue.Mamata had called on Sen on Thursday and told him about her decision to refuse security.


Votichinta Thanda (Karnataka), April 27: 
Changlibai’s eyes are glassy and distant. She does not try to hide that she sold her 15-day-old baby for Rs 500 or deny that she wronged the little one. All she wants you to believe is that she was tricked into thinking her baby would be given a good home.

“This was my third girl child. My husband died due to ill health when my baby was only 15 days old. I did not know what to do. So I gave away the child when someone offered to give her food and a good life,” she says.

Changlibai is one of several Lambada tribals living in Karnataka’s border villages who has been talked into selling her baby for a pittance by agents of illegal adoption homes in Andhra. Over the past week, the lid has been blown off a child-trafficking racket in Andhra where babies bought for as little as Rs 500 are sold to childless foreigners for as much as a lakh.

Changlibai’s baby Brayana has been traced to St Theresa’s Tender Loving Care Adoption Centre in Hyderabad. A case of child-trafficking under IPC Section 373 has been filed against Changlibai by Karnataka police.

Bimi Bai of Pedda village has a similar story to tell. Driven by poverty and a husband who was ailing and out of job, she decided to sell her 50-day-old baby when Parvati and Gurubai promised to give her a good home. “I thought it was the right thing to do instead of letting her starve to death,” said Bimi Bai, who collects tendu leaves for a living.

Lambada village chiefs say the main reason tribals sell their girl children is poverty and the huge dowry that has to be coughed up for their marriages. Added to this is the fact that more female babies are born in these villages. “The major problem is poverty and the huge dowry we have to pay. A minimum of five tolas of gold and Rs 25,000 is the dowry for any groom who owns half-an-acre of land,” says Dewlibai of Sheri village.

Dewlibai has three daughters, while her neighbour Sakku Bai has seven. Asked why she conceived so many times, Sakku Bai said: “My husband wanted a son. My eighth child is a boy.”

Panchayat member of Pedda village Subhas Rathod feels illiteracy, poverty and greed drive the people to get rid of girl children. “We don’t get to know till it is too late because they claim the kids die during delivery,” he says.

Konchavaram SI V. Doddamani said the racket could have gone unnoticed as it was being carried on in border villages. “Besides, the lambadas are Scheduled Castes in Karnataka and Scheduled Tribes in Andhra. If we call them for questioning, the question of harassing Dalits or tribals will arise.”


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