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Bengal Cong veterans wriggle out of ring

New Delhi, March 11: Congress “veterans” in Bengal have desperately been finding excuses to wriggle out of the election ring in spite of Rahul Gandhi’s wishes.

The Bengal party chief, Adhir Chowdhury, had proposed that every senior leader should be fielded to make a powerful impact at the hustings and generate enthusiasm among workers.

Party vice-president Rahul had lapped up the idea and summoned all of them to Delhi for talks. Everyone lauded the proposal but pointed out practical difficulties in contesting the general election.

An adamant Rahul, however, bluntly told the veteran leaders that the party’s decision would have to be respected by all. And C.P. Joshi, the AICC leader in charge of Bengal, returned from the meeting feeling the seniors would jump into the fray.

But the “grand idea” evaporated sooner than later as individual leaders launched their campaigns to dodge the poll ring. Manas Bhuniya, a former PCC president and ex-minister in the Mamata Banerjee government, was said to be the most desperate.

Sources said Bhuniya, 62, pleaded with Chowdhury not to propose his name. He said he was getting on in years and argued that the initial proposal to field Jagannath Goswami from Ghatal should not be changed. But even as he lobbied against a ticket, he prepared to contest in case the high command insisted.

Shanker Singh, 63, who is a strongman of Krishnagar, said he did not want the stigma of being a “loser” at his age. Pradip Bhattacharya, a former PCC chief, told the leadership he could not take the rigour of contesting from Asansol at the age of 69.

Sixty-six-year-old Abdul Mannan too mentioned his advancing age but cited the pain in his leg as the primary reason. Mannan could, however, be the only veteran to contest if the high command piles pressure.

The reluctance to contest has frustrated the central and the state Congress leaderships as the plan to make a big-bang impact will fail if senior leaders opt out. Their absence will show the Congress up as a party lacking in self-confidence and determination. The Bengal unit’s plan to whittle down Trinamul’s clout — even if its candidates don’t win —will also fall through.

The unwillingness in Bengal is in contrast to the ticket frenzy in other states despite the gloomy predictions for the Congress. Leaders older than the Bengal veterans are locked in a fight for tickets. Maharashtra’s Manikrao Gavit, a nine-time MP, insisted on jumping into the fray at the age of 80 and has been given a ticket.

Former rail minister Pawan Bansal, 66, is running from pillar to post to secure a ticket from Chandigarh as the party doubts his popularity may have dipped after the cash-for-post bribery scandal he got embroiled in. Although wheelchair-bound, Ajit Jogi, 68, would raise a ruckus if denied a ticket.

Even in Bengal, Congress candidates Somen Mitra and Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury are 71 and 76, respectively.

Sis Ram Ola, the Congress MP from Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, was 82 when he contested the 2009 election. The Janata Dal (U) MP from Hajipur, Ram Sunder Das, is 93.

In other parties, age has not curtailed leaders’ political ambitions. The most striking example is of 80-year-old Murli Manohar Joshi who was reluctant to give up his Varanasi seat for Narendra Modi but has said he will go along with the party decision. L.K. Advani too has refused to hang up his boots at 86.

H.D. Deve Gowda remains active at 81, possibly with the hope of making it big again. Lok Sabha deputy Speaker Kariya Munda, 78, and Baramulla MP Shariq Sharifuddin, 79, are raring for a contest.

BJP veteran and Bhopal MP Kailash Joshi, though, has called it a day at 85. But he is 20 years older than some Bengal leaders who feel too old to contest.