Sonia for sight, Mamata for sound
Advani stokes Trinamul fire
PM goes back to basics with assessment card
Fear binds accidental rivals
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, May 3: 
One is looking at the other to deliver the ballast to fire the last lap of her run for the red-brick building in Calcutta. The other hopes to kickstart her race for the pink-stone building in Delhi with the capture of Bengal.

For the first time in their political careers, the power pretenders � Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee � took the stage together in election rallies strung across the south of Bengal, proving a perfect foil for each other.

Starting at Midnapore, which will be the single most important district in this any-which-way election, they travelled into the Red Fort�s sanctum, Burdwan, Sonia using reason and Mamata rhyme to tell the voter to throw the Left Front out.

No ambiguity. No beating about the bush. The two women came, each prepared with her brief, and stuck to it. So did the people: See Sonia, hear Mamata.

They came to see Sonia: how the aquiline features look in a block-printed yellow-and-brown Sanganeri sari with the pallu over the head. Mamata�s grey-and-black Dhaniakhali is familiar. They came to hear her.

Mamata couldn�t have had a better homecoming, nor Sonia a better reunion.

Their body language and the rapport they seemed to have renewed in the one hour they spent together before reaching Ravan Maidan at Kharagpur for the first of the meetings didn�t leave any more scope for misunderstanding in the brief but tempestuous relationship between the Congress and Trinamul.

Despite a minor divergence in their rhetoric � Sonia attacked both the Left and the BJP and Mamata only the Left � the similarities between their languages and their tenor were striking for a joint first meeting.

Sonia, not known for her stridency, matched Mamata epithet for epithet in her laboured Hindi. �There�s no law in West Bengal, it has been replaced by the rule of CPM law,� she said. The Midnapore crowd lapped it up.

Mamata spoke before Sonia, perhaps the only leader she has given the final-speech honour to since becoming Mamata.

�I have come here on numerous occasions. Today you must have come to hear Soniaji,� Mamata said, keeping her speech short.

�Vote. Don�t be afraid,� she told the people of violence-ravaged Midnapore. �Vote without fear,� Sonia chorused.

Before that she got a taste of the Mamata �wind� as the truant-daughter-come-home worked the crowd up into a frenzy like a rock artiste with her chant: �Bhikkhe noy, chaichhi rheen, Hindu-Muslim vote din, CPM-ke shoriye din. (I�m not begging, I�m asking for a loan, vote and dethrone the CPM).�

The leader of the 112-year party acknowledged the prowess of the leader of a three-year party by nudging Mamata forward as they climbed down the dais.

Sonia�s appeal is to the Muslim: �If there is any party in this country that has not compromised with the BJP, it is the Congress.�

Mamata�s to everybody.

Her idea of a �people�s mahajot� is taking shape in pockets of the Red Fort. She does not bash the BJP because she wants their votes. Mamata is one label that fits all except the colour red. Sonia wants Mamata.

�It is true that parties fight polls. But once the election is over, the government belongs to the people. Those who go against the people have no right to continue in government. We, the Congress and Mamata, have entered into this alliance to liberate the people of Bengal from the CPM�s oppression,� says Sonia, voice already hoarse at Burdwan, only the second meeting of the day.

She is speaking Mamata�s language. Minutes earlier, the Trinamul leader took on the �penitent� CPM. �Now they are saying they have made mistakes.� She is talking of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee�s promise of a new, improved Left Front. �You do not make mistakes for 24 years. You commit crimes! You do not wake up from slumber after 24 years. You give way! Jyoti Basu is dreaming of becoming Prime Minister again and is now leading a third front. What is the third front without the Congress? A zero. It is time for him to amuse his grandchildren and great-grandchildren: Twinkle, twinkle little star, dadu hoben barrister.�

Mamata speaks for 13 minutes. In between, she has sought the crowd�s response six times. Once she interrupts herself, when some to her left complain they cannot see because of the Congress and Trinamul flags fluttering on the dais. Mamata walks to the corner, ties the flags together.

The crowd can see, the flags are not removed, the message is delivered. The crowd is rapturous.

Sonia Gandhi loves it, too. She is laughing, perhaps wishing she had the idea.


New Delhi and Calcutta, May 3: 
Hours after Mamata Banerjee launched her shoulder-to-shoulder campaign with Sonia Gandhi in Bengal, her party general secretary said in Delhi that a post-election return to the BJP-led alliance was not ruled out.

Adding fuel to the fire, BJP leader L.K. Advani claimed that three more Trinamul Congress MPs had echoed Ajit Panja�s displeasure over Mamata�s pullout from the ruling alliance.

�Not only Panja, three more Trinamul MPs are unhappy with Mamata�s decision and we are counting on their support for the National Democratic Alliance,� he said, sparking speculation that the BJP was trying to split Trinamul. But when questioned, Advani said: �I am telling you bare facts about the Trinamul and nothing more.�

In Delhi, Trinamul leader Nitish Sengupta said a decision to go back to the ruling alliance could be taken after the May 10 polls.

Asked if the party would extend support to the Vajpayee government, Sengupta said: �We will decide that later. Let the elections be over.� Pressed further, he insisted: �As of now, no decision.�

Clearly eager to return to the alliance, Sengupta said Trinamul could offer outside support to the government, like the Telugu Desam. A little later, he said: �There can be issue-based support.�

Sengupta�s move, which is bound to embarrass Mamata, comes days after senior party colleague Panja revolted against the leadership for pulling out of the BJP-led alliance. Sengupta is also seen as a rebel.

At a press conference here, he described Panja�s plan to accompany Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to election rallies in Bengal as his �individual decision�. Asked if it did not invite expulsion from the party, Sengupta said: �It is a democratic party.�

The Trinamul leader, however, played down Mamata�s reluctance to write to Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi about quitting the alliance. �Mamata is too busy with election work to find time to write to the Speaker,� he said.

Coming down heavily on the CPM for �unleashing a reign of terror� to rig elections, Sengupta said his party has requested the Bengal Governor to consider imposing President�s rule for a �short spell to enable smooth conduct of elections�. He said the party has today urged the Election Commission to ensure better use of paramilitary forces. It has also demanded a ban on pillion-riding till the elections.

Sengupta alleged that the Tehelka expos� was a CPM conspiracy. When reminded that his party had walked out of the BJP-led alliance because of the revelations of corruption in defence deals, he said: �After the Tehelka expos�, it was difficult for us to stay. The CPM fellows started shouting in Parliament.�


New Delhi, May 3: 
The Prime Minister is falling back on the time-tested triumvirate of pani, kapda and makan to give the Tehelka-tarred government an image makeover and shield the coalition from the glare of a possible lacklustre performance in the Assembly polls.

From May 8, Atal Bihari Vajpayee will carry out a personal appraisal of all development activities initiated by the social sector ministries and departments.

The Prime Minister also wants to take a personal interest in relief and rehabilitation in earthquake-ravaged Gujarat. He plans to carry out an assessment before he finally visits Ahmedabad, Bhuj and other affected areas in early June.

The focus marks a departure from the Centre�s declared position. Delhi had earlier promised all help but made it clear that it would stay away from implementation, as well as appraisal, as these were the responsibility of the state government.

But Vajpayee now wants to play an active part in rehabilitation. The BJP government in Gujarat has faced widespread criticism for mismanaging the rebuilding effort.

The Prime Minister�s social sector appraisal will cover the khadi development schemes under the ministry of small-scale industries. Vasundhara Raje Scindia, who holds this portfolio, has been asked to give a presentation at the Prime Minister�s house on the activities initiated, the lacunae and plans to increase khadi output.

Vajpayee will also look into drinking water schemes, especially in rural areas. The government has a water resources wing and a drinking water supply mission.

The Prime Minister wants to talk to the ministers and officials concerned to find out if adequate drinking water supply is being arranged, particularly in the parched areas of the country.

Reports of drought have started pouring in from different parts of Rajasthan and, to some extent, from Gujarat. Parts of Orissa are also going without water.

The rural roads scheme launched on Vajpayee�s birthday last year is third on his list of priorities. From the beginning of his second term in 1998, the Prime Minister had been stressing on the need for better roads linking remote villages with highways.

The stocktaking is expected to spread gradually to other key ministries and departments, including the human resources development ministry run by one of Vajpayee�s senior colleagues, Murli Manohar Joshi.

The hands-on approach reflects a shift in the Prime Minister�s style of functioning. So far, he had refrained from interfering in micro-matters of individual ministries.

The strategy switch with the initial focus on the rural belt also betrays the government�s eagerness to send a message that the sector is still a priority in the age of reforms.

Some Sangh parivar affiliates had recently complained that the Prime Minister was losing contact with the rural masses by opting for liberalisation policies.


Calcutta, May 3: 
The buzz in Dhakuria is that both Saugata Roy and Kshiti Goswami are unhappy with their constituency.

Saugata, because he wanted Alipore, from where he is the sitting MLA, and which is considered the safer seat for Trinamul. Mamata allotted the Alipore ticket to Tapas Paul. When Saugata did not get what he wanted, the buzz further had it that she was not very keen on ensuring the victory of all those who joined her party after February (in Saugata�s case, �re-joined� the party).

Kshiti�s cause for unhappiness is Saugata. �What is this?,� he is reported to have told a confidant after Trinamul announced its list of candidates. �Why is Mamata giving a walkover to Buddha (Bhattacharjee) in Jadavpur by fielding a novice like Madhabi (Mukherjee) there while pitting a heavyweight like Saugata Roy against me?�

Actually, the RSP leader and minister for public works has other reasons for nervousness, too, some of them of his � and the Left�s � own making. For one, Saifuddin Chowdhury�s Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) threatens to eat away further into the eroding Left base. Among those campaigning for the PDS candidate, Surangama Bhattacharyya, are former activists of the CPM. On its own, the RSP has very little organisational presence left in the constituency. It is dependent in the main on the CPM cadre who go around telling people that the Left symbol here is not the hammer-sickle-and-star but the spade-and-shovel.

Second, Kshiti has been among the more outspoken of ministers in the Cabinet. He has taken potshots at his own government � on environment policy, on tardy release of funds for development projects, on refusal of a World Bank aid offer and such like.

Third, despite having been the public works minister, Goswami continues to be asked questions on the delay over the extension of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass connector, a pedestrian flyover and the filling up of ponds.

Fourth, the Trinamul campaign in Dhakuria is not entirely dependent on �hawa� (wind), but also on organisation. Among those escorting Saugata Roy on his door-to-door campaign are former sympathisers of the CPM, well-versed in the art of electioneering.

What Goswami has in his favour is the BJP and history. But both need to synchronise their damaging impact on Saugata Roy�s campaign to bail out Goswami. Dhakuria has almost always been faithful to the Left. Should it choose to keep up the tradition, Goswami�s home.

But history is a double-edged sword.

One evening this week, as Saugata Roy went from door to door, presenting himself to his voters, an old woman in a ground floor house on Maharaja Tagore Road, called him to the window. Roy, smiling, went up to her and said: �I am Saugata Roy, the Trinamul candidate.� Just as he was about to leave, the lady asked him to wait a minute.

�I don�t give a damn what you will do,� she told him. �I�m just sick of seeing the same faces in government. This time, there must be change.� Music to Saugata Roy�s ears. Cacophony for Goswami but the PWD minister was not within earshot.

�You have voted for them five times. Give us just five years,� replied Roy.

This is where Roy gets the edge in Dhakuria. Coupled with the mood, is the fact that the Trinamul has a semblance of organisation in the constituency.

�Dhakuria has a total of 259 booths. We have decided to have at least three volunteers per booth from our party,� says a member of the Trinamul�s election committee. In vast parts of the state, Trinamul campaigners cannot claim to have so many workers for electioneering.

In Dhakuria, unlike even in many Calcutta constituencies, the Trinamul is able to organise a door-to-door campaign.

The Left campaign relies, apart from its conventional methods, on streetplays. But few can be more theatrical than Mamata Banerjee.

The evidence that Dhakuria, which has an electorate of 2.08 lakh, is swinging towards change has piled up since the last Assembly poll. Mamata Banerjee led by 30,000 in the Dhakuria segment in the 1999 Lok Sabha poll.

But that plunged in the corporation polls in the four-and-a-half wards that make up the constituency to 7,500.

This is where Kshiti Goswami draws hope from � that the Trinamul�s margin has narrowed. Kshiti Goswami won in 1996 by about 7,000 votes.




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