The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Barkatda myth rules, period

Malda, May 6: Ilyas Master of Jalalpur has much the same problem as the CPM in Malda — how to convince his people that more things happen in Malda than are scripted in A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury’s ancestral palace at Kotwali.

Like most other politicians, he knows Malda has many problems, the worst of which is the annual erosion of the river banks and destruction of homes and agricultural fields. But his — and his party’s — big problem still remains fighting the myth of Barkatda.

The young schoolteacher, a CPM youth leader, speaks of issues of national politics, the BJP’s “communalism”, the Congress’s failure to stop the demolition of the Babri Masjid and of course, the Left Front’s achievements in Bengal. But his campaign hits a wall when it comes to Abu Barkat Ataur Ghani Khan Chowdhury.

Jalalpur is a small marketplace on National Highway 34, about 20 km from Malda town. It is part of the Sujapur Assembly constituency, which is represented by Chowdhury’s sister, Ruby Noor, who is also the president of the Malda district Congress. As Ilyas Master makes his little speech, filling in for the CPM candidate, Pranab Das, who is yet to arrive, two farmers from two neighbouring villages engage in an animated conversation. Mohammed Jakir Hossain wants electricity in his village, while Anarul Islam’s priority is a good road in his.

They don’t like it when Ilyas Master asks why Sujapur is so backward even after voting so solidly for the Chowdhury family in Assembly or parliamentary elections. Told about the villagers’ response after the meeting, the schoolteacher admits, rather mournfully, “That’s our problem here. The Barkat myth simply won’t die.”

And the myth makes the election campaign here very different from elsewhere in Bengal. The Congress campaign runs, as always since 1980 when Chowdhury won the first of his seven successful Lok Sabha campaigns, on how he “developed” Malda. Anyone questioning that does a dishonour to Malda and its “Maker”.

This time, though, Chowdhury’s men accuse the CPM of inflicting “the most dishonourable” of injuries. They are “spreading lies” about his health, even his age (because of a “mistake” in his nomination papers), complains Gautam Chakraborty, Chowdhury’s longtime protégé and now the sabhadhipati of the zilla parishad. “But even the CPM knows it can’t bash Barkatda too much because that’d inspire a backlash.”

The CPM obviously denies that it attacks Chowdhury “personally”. The party candidate Das or its district secretary Jiban Maitra does not think it is abusing Chowdhury by mentioning that he could not attend the last Lok Sabha for more than 27 days because of his indifferent health. The problem for the party is that the more it says anything about Chowdhury, the more the Congress seeks to exploit the “calumny”.

It is not a fact, though, that the Congress takes it in all elections because of Chowdhury. Even Barkatda has to fight hard for every inch of his way.

In the 1991 parliamentary polls, he edged narrowly past his CPM rival by a margin of only 1,820 votes. In the last Assembly elections, the CPM won four of the seven Assembly seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, his victory margin was less than 25,000. And, in the panchayat elections last May, the CPM’s total votes were 84,000 more than that of the Congress, which is the biggest anti-Left force in Malda.

Congressmen, on the other hand, are more confident than last time. They are certain that a substantial part of the BJP’s vote of 172,000 would come Chowdhury’s way this time. The reason: the BJP’s nominee, Badshah Alam, is seen as a much weaker candidate than Muzzaffar Khan who fought last time.

Also, the Congress, Trinamul Congress and the BJP are increasingly closing ranks against the CPM. The most striking example is of the English Bazar municipality, run jointly by the anti-Left “Mahajot”.

CPM leaders counter-argue that their advantage of numbers in the panchayat polls cannot wholly disappear just because of Chowdhury. But they also know that parliamentary polls are very different from the panchayat ones. And, of course, Chowdhury himself makes the big difference.

So, it is the Congress, rather than its candidate, which the CPM tries to project here as “equal dangers”. Hence the punchline of the party campaign in this Muslim-dominated district — if the BJP was responsible for the killing of Muslims in Gujarat, the Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao was to blame for the destruction of Babri Masjid.

But, after all that is said, even CPM leaders admit it is not easy to make people believe that Barkatda can be defeated. So more people bet on his making it to the Lok Sabha for a record eighth time.

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