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CPM's non-Bengali face

From a distance, it might have appeared a no-contest when Rekha Singh (who') was pitted against Sudip Bando-padhyay, the three-time MLA and former MP.

But in Bowbazar, where 21,000 voters are non-Bengali and over 30,000 women, Singh, the CPM believes, can pip the Congress heavyweight and Trinamul Congress's Sultan Ahmed to the post.

That the 37-year-old Hindi teacher of Jaipuria College is also fluent in Gujarati, Rajasthani, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magadhi and Urdu stretches her appeal across the large non-Bengali population.

The CPM's hunt for a non-Bengali face in central Calcutta had made it try Sarala Maheswari against Subrata Mukherjee in 1991. She lost. In 1994, the party nominated Chandrakala Pandey to the Rajya Sa- bha. Since her term ended, there has been a void.

Rekha 'David' Singh is sparing no effort. Until campaigning ended at 5 pm on Tuesday, she left her Jorabagan home at 7.30 every morning and went door to door, the customary college bag slung across her shoulder but the workday sari giving way to the more roadworthy cotton salwar-kameez.

Some of her students, present and former, trailed their diminutive didi as she picked out the 'behenjis' and 'bhabhijis' for a few extra words.

'Being a teacher who speaks their language, she can relate to them better,' a CPM functionary said.

Sudip 'Goliath' Bandopadhyay's campaign was in a different league altogether. A cavalcade of cars and hangers-on followed his air-conditioned Tata Sumo all along.

Bandopadhyay won the seat thrice between 1987 and 1998. His actor wife Nayana is the MLA now.

'Rekhaji's appeal among the non-Bengali voters is her USP,' said a CPM worker, as Singh stopped for a sip of water from an old soft drink bottle and a few bites of biscuits.

Around 1.30 pm, she would return home for lunch and a little rest.

Singh and her husband, a Calcutta University teacher, had taken leave for three weeks to focus on the campaign.

'In my absence, my hus- band looks after the house and our daughter, Rhythm,' she said. Rhythm does not have a surname ' even in school ' because her parents do not want her to have a caste.

In the evenings, Singh was back in her sari for three or four street-corner meetings.

Delivering speeches should come easy to the ex-SFI leader. In 1998, she joined the CPM youth wing, the DYFI, and is now its district committee vice-president.

Her first taste of poll politics came in 1991 when she campaigned for Rabin Deb in an Assembly bypoll that he won.

'I never dreamt of being a candidate myself,' she said.

Singh had heard about her nomination on TV. 'I took three days to recover.'

But the late CPM state secretary, Anil Biswas, had said 'don't worry'. With the Congress and Trinamul in the fray, the CPM has an advantage.

But isn't Bandopadhyay a daunting proposition'

No, she said. 'He hasn't done anything for the area ' there's an acute water scarcity and there are drainage problems in several wards. We lack high schools for Urdu-speaking girls. No one has seen the MLA in the last five years.'

And Sultan Ahmed' He'll only end up cutting into Bandopadhyay's votes, Singh said.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Bandopadhyay, then an Independent backed by the Congress, led his nearest rival, Trinamul's Subrata Mukherjee, by about 2,000 votes in the Bowbazar segment.

Ahmed declined comment. A Trinamul functionary said an 'outsider', Singh wouldn't know the people's needs.

But Singh has no compunction contesting from an area where she doesn't live. 'If Manmohan Singh can contest from Assam and Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bereli, what wrong have I done' she asked.

The Congress is already crying foul. She is polarising non-Bengalis and Bengalis, a local leader alleged.

Singh waved it away. 'I'm married to a Bengali.'

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