“We are booking a big ground, and 30,000-40,000 people will be there.” There is a palpable excitement on phone in the voice of Sankar Malakar, the Congress MLA for the last decade from West Bengal’s Matigara-Naxalbari seat, in Siliguri.
Malakar, also the working president of the Congress in West Bengal, is preparing for former party president Rahul Gandhi’s first rally in the state this election season on April 14.
Gandhi will be in this constituency after nearly half the election in West Bengal (four out of eight phases) is over and with just a fortnight left for the campaign to end in the state.
“Rahul’s entry into West Bengal will be very beneficial for us. Our voters and workers will be motivated. This helps our alliance with the Left and ISF, too. We are fighting against the Bijumal – that is BJP plus Trinamool, as BJP is made up of mostly ex-TMC people. Muslims will be voting for our alliance in a big way,” Malakar told News18 on the phone.
Rahul has, so far, stayed away from West Bengal, given the paradoxical situation in which his party is fighting the Left in Kerala and aligning with them in Bengal.
It was, hence, expected that Rahul would step into the campaign in Bengal only after April 7 when polling in Kerala is over, and he steps in now only a week later. Congress ally ISF’s chief Abbas Siddiqui, in an interview with News18 earlier, had also voiced his disappointment over the Congress absence in the campaign.
“We know Rahul was busy with the Assam and the Kerala campaign. But we are glad he will be here now,” Malakar says. With polling in this seat taking place on April 17 and the Election Commission (EC) extending the ‘campaign silence period’ to 72 hours after the Cooch Behar violence, Rahul’s rally is now effectively on the last day of the campaigning for the fifth phase of elections.
Focus on Muslim votes
A senior West Bengal Congress leader said that there was a demand from Congress candidates for Rahul’s rallies and they want him to address at least a dozen rallies in the state, especially in the Malda and Murshidabad districts, where Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Choudhary has a strong influence and the Muslim electorate is loyal towards the party.
Rahul’s second rally on April 14 will be in Goalpokhar in Uttar Dinajpur district, the seat with one of the highest Muslim population in the state, at nearly 74 percent proportion. “The TMC has done nothing for the Muslims here who now realise it is only the Congress-Left-ISF alliance which can stop the BJP from coming to power in the state. We have big hopes from Rahul’s rally here,” Mohd Naseem Ahsen, the Congress candidate from Goalpokhar, told News18 on phone.
Congress won this seat last in 2006 when Deepa Dasmunsi, wife of late Congress leader Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, had contested. She is campaigning here for the Congress now, camping in the seat. “All candidates on my seat – the BJP, TMC and Congress – are Muslims. The sitting TMC MLA for the last decade, Mohd Ghulam Rabbani, has failed the Muslims. He is just telling Muslims that Mamata Banerjee will stop the NRC, so vote for her. But Rahul has pledged to stop the NRC not just in Bengal but in the entire country. His rally will be beneficial to our entire district,” Ahsen said.
BJP looks on
The BJP, intriguingly, does not seem much bothered by Rahul’s entry into the West Bengal campaign, with at least two party leaders telling News18 that his campaign would end up helping the BJP as the Congress-Left-ISF alliance eats into the TMC’s vote share.
“We have also fielded some Muslim candidates in Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur districts. We are hoping that in the fight between TMC and the Alliance on the Muslim-dominated seats, the BJP gets some advantage by either winning the seat or the Alliance denying the seat to the TMC,” one of the BJP leaders said.
In fact, as per BJP’s internal assessment, it is in a close fight in both the Matigara-Naxalbari and the Goalpokhar seats where Rahul will be campaigning on April 14.
The BJP, so far, has refrained from publicly criticising or taking on the Congress-Left-ISF alliance in West Bengal, focussing its energies on the TMC. “It would be interesting to see who Rahul criticises more in his rallies -- the BJP or the TMC,” the second leader said.