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Pranab walks the same path

Alipurduar, May 4: The crux of the speech was more or less the same ' intense Left bashing, sprinkled with accounts of the crisis in the tea gardens and the problems of Naxalite and Maoist movements, and dollops of promises.

No that the crowd was expecting anything new from defence minister and PCC president Pranab Mukherjee, especially after the last few days, when a stream of Congress VIPs ' from Priya Ranjan Das Munshi to Margaret Alva ' harped on the same issues.

However, in all the cases, the helicopter has been able to keep up the crowd's interest. Today, too, more than 1,000 people had gathered at the Alipurduar Parade ground when the chopper landed with Mukherjee and Manas Bhunia, the general secretary of the state Congress, at 12 noon.

As he made his way towards the car, Mukherjee greeted 10-year-old Indranil Das who had come to see the chopper: 'Hello, young one, you are our future.'

Once on stage, Mukherjee launched his tirade against the Left Front government in Bengal. 'The CPM-led government has done nothing for north Bengal in the last 29 years. Flood is a major problem, but they did not even think of a masterplan. When I became the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, I told (former chief minister) Jyoti Basu several times to think about it. It was only last year that Priya Ranjan took the initiative and sanctioned funds for the flood-control programme.'

Earlier, the defence minister introduced his prot'g' and one of the youngest candidates ' 28-year-old Saurav Chakroborty ' to the people and asked them to vote for the Chhatra Parishad leader. Chakroborty, who believes more in door-to-door campaigning then mass meetings, has been fielded against Nirmal Das, the sitting RSP MLA.

About the condition of tea workers, the minister repeated what many had said before him. 'The condition of the tea gardens in the region is deteriorating with every passing day, but nothing is being done for the workers. However, it is the UPA government at the Centre which for the first time announced that Rs 100 crore will be spent for the development of garden labourers. Even that we feel is insufficient.'

The Union minister admitted that the plan for a grand alliance in Bengal had failed. 'We tried to make a mahajot but could not because of Mamata (Banerjee). She refused to sever her ties with the BJP.'

The Chhatra Parishad activists, in the meantime, were disappointed. They had expected a little more attention from Mukherjee. Instead, they were ordered down from the dais by Biswaranjan Sarkar, the president of Jalpaiguri district committee of the Congress, who said the stage might collapse if so many people crowded on it.

On his way back to the helipad, Mukherjee told The Telegraph: 'We have identified 65 districts in nine states where the Naxalite movement is active. Special forces will be deployed in these areas, the cost of which will be borne by the central government.'

He added that he had already had a talk with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and minister of commerce and industry Kamal Nath regarding the crisis in the tea industry. 'Very soon a sizeable amount will be sanctioned for the gardens,' he said.

At 1.20 pm, Mukherjee left for Birpara, 65 km away. Two more meetings had been lined up for him at Chalsha and Jaigaon today.

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