The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Advani 'welcomes' Cong
- Ray by side, BJP chief sees Bihar replay in Bengal

Calcutta, Dec. 18: As in Bihar, the Assembly polls in Bengal would be a challenge to the Election Commission, BJP president L.K. Advani said today.

'There was a time (when) we thought a political change would not be possible in Bihar. But the EC (Election Commission) has ensured it. Now, the Assembly polls in Bengal will be a challenge to the Election Commission,' he told a convention of the Trinamul Congress youth wing at Netaji Indoor Stadium.

Former Congress chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a sworn enemy of the saffron party once, shared the dais with Advani, who said it is time for the people of Bengal to show their courage. 'If the people cannot show courage, the EC alone cannot do anything.'

Advani might have to quit his post of BJP president by the year-end, but he made it clear that his party would not mind if the Congress enters into an alliance with the BJP and Trinamul. 'If the Congress (leaders) want to join the grand alliance, they are welcome. If they don't, we will fight without them,' he said.

In an apparent reference to state Congress president and defence minister Pranab Mukherjee's rejection of Mamata Banerjee's invitation to the convention, Advani said it was not necessary that all those present today should have similar views. 'But our common objective is to see the end of the communist rule.'

Ray, now in political hibernation, came down on the state Congress chief. 'How can Pranabbabu attend this convention' He is busy back-patting Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as we saw in Farakka yesterday,' he said.

At the foundation-stone laying for a cement factory, the chief minister had praised the Congress-led Centre for its co-operation and Mukherjee gave credit to the Left government for agricultural reforms and a surge in industrial growth.

Advani admitted that he had not expected to see Ray at the meeting. 'It has a special significance. This is a message to the people of Bengal.'

He also said the Congress had no option but to stay away as it was an ally of the CPM.

Ray tried to woo Muslim voters for Mamata. He said: 'If the BJP is untouchable, why is the Congress running the Englishbazar municipal board (in Malda) with its help' The NDA is not against Muslims. I have complete faith in Mamata.'

Mamata followed Advani in exhorting anti-CPM forces to unite under the banner of the Paschimbanga Ganatant-rik Front, which she has floated. 'Those who will not join us might stay with the CPM,' she said. So far, only some small parties have joined forces with the Trinamul chief.

The Congress condemned Ray's criticism of Mukherjee. 'Siddhartha Shankar Ray is no longer a politician. He had deserted the party in its dark days in 1977,' said Manas Bhuniya, a state Congress general secretary.

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