| Mukherjee: The ring master
Jangipur, May 5: It is 10.30 in the morning. A Tata Sumo arrives at the marketplace in Nabagram with a few local leaders of the Congress. One of them has the microphone announcing the coming of Pranab Mukherjee, “pride of Bengal, all-India leader and our candidate from Jangipur”.
Market goers and other locals stop to form a small crowd. Mukherjee’s Sumo is presently on the scene, followed by a number of other vehicles. His face is burnt by days of campaigning under a merciless sun and his voice chokes in the dust as he makes his little speech.
All this is a very different party game from the ones he has been used to playing since he last fought an election 24 years ago.
He has done a lot of running around, though. But that is mostly as the Congress high command’s troubleshooter or alliance-maker. Mukherjee has been the man Sonia Gandhi reaches for when the party needs to strike up an alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu or the Telengana Rashtra Samiti in Andhra Pradesh and when someone like K. Karunakaran threatens to split the party in Kerala. And he manages all these with aplomb.
This, however, is a different day. Mukherjee explains why it is pointless to vote for the CPM, his main rival in Jangipur.
“It’s a Lok Sabha election, which is all about forming a government at the Centre. The Leftists exist in only the three states of Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Even if they do well in these states, they can manage to get 35-40 seats at the most. But it’s a laughable number in a house of 543.”
He also points to the “dangers” the country faces today because of the BJP’s wrong economic policies and its communal agenda. But he will take on the BJP back in Delhi; here in Jangipur his job is to trounce the CPM. And in that task Mukherjee has many advantages.
First, he has chosen a district which is the Congress’ strongest fort in the whole of Bengal, possibly even more so than A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s Malda. Troubleshooter and alliance-maker, Mukherjee is also the Congress’ best-known leader for number-crunching. So he knew his advantages with numbers when he chose Jangipur.
Flanked on one side by Behrampore, where Congress strongman Adhir Choudhury has sent the CPM packing in Lok Sabha, municipal and even panchayat elections, and Malda on the other, where the redoubtable, seven-time winner Barkat-da reigns supreme, Jangipur seems to be tailor-made for a tall Congress leader like Mukherjee.
Even the CPM admits that Pranabbabu’s tall stature in the Congress and in national politics is one of his assets in this campaign. “He is big and will make Jangipur a big name, like Malda next door,” says Youth Congress leader Prodyot Guha, travelling with Mukherjee.
The advantages of Jangipur’s political location and of his own stature add to the advantage of numbers.
The last time the area had seen an election — for the panchayats last May — the Left had its biggest shock across Bengal in Murshidabad.
Not only did the Left lose the zilla parishad, as it did in Malda as well, but its hardest jolt came in that it lost it because of the internal fight among Left Front partners. The Congress was ahead of the Front not only in the zilla parishad but also in the gram panchayats.
If the disunity in the Left camp is Mukherjee’s advantage number three, the fourth is his chance of uniting the non-Left vote. It’s no secret that he represents the so-called grand alliance of the non-Left. Mukherjee knows it when he takes the village roads from Nabagram for five hours this morning. Not one printed poster, let alone graffiti on the walls of mud huts, is there to distract him from his CPM rival, Abul Hasnat Khan.
For the record, there is a Trinamul Congress candidate for Jangipur, Sheesh Mohammad, who left the RSP at the time of the last Assembly polls to join Mamata Banerjee’s party.
Advantage five: he is the only Hindu candidate for the constituency where 54 per cent of the voters are Muslims.
In the last Assembly polls, when the BJP went it alone, it secured more than 60,000 votes in the seven Assembly segments within the Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency. No prizes for guessing which way most of these votes will go this time.
Advantage six: as the candidate of the “secular” party Mukherjee stands to split the CPM’s Muslim vote bank — somewhat like the scenario in Uttar Pradesh, where the Muslim vote could be divided between the Congress and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party.
Now, it’s over to the CPM candidate, Khan, to put his arguments against Mukherjee’s apparent advantages. Taking a break from the morning campaign in the Sammatinagar office of his party near the small, dusty town of Jangipur by National Highway 34, Khan makes his counterpoints coolly.
Yes, the Left was badly divided at the time of the panchayat polls. But the shock defeat in the zilla parishad has been a tough lesson. The worry has now united the Front partners as never before.
Not all the BJP-Trinamul votes would go Mukherjee’s way, Khan says, because the CPM has worked hard since the last polls to win over sections of these voters.
The Congress’ “communal campaign” over Mukherjee being “the only Hindu candidate” may backfire among the Muslims.
But to Khan, Mukherjee’s biggest disadvantage is what Congress supporters think is his biggest advantage — that he is a big leader who can get things done in Delhi. “He is too big for Jangipur and Delhi is too far from here,” says the CPM candidate who is the Citu’s district president and long-time organiser of the ill-paid and otherwise exploited workers of Murshidabad’s beedi industry. “Moreover, Pranabbabu is not even Ghani Khan, who lives in Malda and has done much for Malda.”
So what’s it on balance' Mukherjee, the closet politician, stands a fairly good chance of winning in this late attempt at mass politics. But that will be only if local Congress supporters can match the CPM’s organisation to pull people to the polling booths on May 10.