| Sonia Gandhi interacts with the crowd at the South Malda College grounds on Friday. Picture by Surajit Roy
April 28: Reazul Karim and Sujan Mondol were clutching at a piece of paper and staring in disbelief at the scrawl penned hurriedly by Sonia Gandhi when they implored her for an autograph.
'We had come to see the helicopter land and were standing at the edge of the bamboo barricade. I still cannot believe that I shook hands with Sonia Gandhi and she even kept my request for an autograph,' said an excited Sujan. Both youths had cycled down to the South Malda College grounds from their village, 6 km away, to be at the helipad.
Sonia had landed in a swirl of dust under the blazing sun at the makeshift helipad in Malda. It was 2.20 pm and she had addressed a rally in Jangipur in Murshidabad almost an hour ago. With most of the people interested in being around the helicopter, the Congress president was taken to one of the classrooms in the college while state leaders like Pradip Bhattacharya implored the scattered crowd to take their place before the dais.
When the meeting started, with Pranab Mukherjee beginning proceedings, the crowd was still thin. Ten minutes later Sonia took over. She addressed the crowd for 12 minutes. Paying homage to A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Sonia said the Congress MP had worked for Malda all his life.
Meeting over, instead of getting on to the bullet-proof Tata Safari, she made a beeline for the barricade where hundreds of people were calling out her name.
Walking, sometimes stumbling due to the uneven ground, the AICC chairperson greeted the people with folded hands. Sometime she waved. Defence minister and senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee, Malda zilla parishad sabhadhipati Gautam Chakrabarty, Ghani Khan's siblings and sitting MLAs Ruby Noor and Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury and SPG personnel struggled to keep up with her.
Standing in the crowd was Parul Roy, clutching her six-year-old son. Sonia stopped before her and asked her in Hindi: 'What is the name of your son' 'Supriyo' replied Parul. What followed next was a barrage of queries ' Does he go to school' How far is it from home' Are the roads all right' ' for Parul and those around her. She was very keen to find out if all the young girls in the crowd went to school.
In fact, Sonia spent more time with the crowd than she did with her speech. She spent over 15 minutes with the people before getting on to the car which drove her to the chopper that was waiting nearly 500 m away.
'It was very hard keeping up with her. Pranabda and I had a hard time. But we hope Soniaji's enthusiasm and her interaction with the crowd will help the party sweep the polls in Malda,' Chakrabarty said after the helicopter left for Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur.
As far as her election speech was concerned at all three meetings today, Sonia was critical of the 'lack of development' under the Marxist rule. 'The Congress is the only party that thinks and stands beside the poor and the deprived. After coming to power, the UPA government has acceded to all requests made by the Bengal government. We have recognised the Ganga erosion as a national problem and we have created a task force to look into it,' Sonia told the crowd here.
'I do not believe in giving false promises, but note that when the Congress was in power in the state, things were much better. Today hundreds of factories have shut down and the health and education system have collapsed,' she said.
The Congress chief also cited figures to prove that unemployment had increased by leaps and bounds in Bengal in the past 30 years' the era of the Marxists. In the meeting in Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur, Union minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi heaped praises on Sonia and curiously attributed all development work in the state to her.
At Kaliaganj, she told the crowd that the UPA government's common minimum programme would be fully implemented. 'What my party says, it does,' she said.
At all the three venues, Sonia was introduced to the Congress candidates of the respective areas.