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The fluttering posters on the closed gate of Kotwali Bhavan in Malda town, the ancestral house of Ghani Khan Chowdhury, tell the story of the Congress in the bastion of one of its tallest leaders. As the late leader’s niece and Rajya Sabha MP Mausam Noor convalesces from Covid-19 in the sprawling house, Khan Chowdhury’s legacy is caught in the political fight between her and his nephew Isha. The posters at the gate canvass votes for both the TMC and the Congress, with Isha a fellow resident at the house.
Insiders insist this shows the bonhomie between them despite being in rivals Congress and Trinamool. Isha Khan Chowdhury incidentally is married to Noor’s elder sister. However, while the family and its many branches of politicians have long fiddled with both parties, factors other than loyalty to Khan Chowdhury are at play this time.
Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Noor had crossed over from the Congress to the Trinamool. Now, as Isha goes around trying to convince voters that it is only the Congress that can hold back the BJP, the pitch may not be enough to see the party through in this minority-dominated region. Steadfast loyalists of the Congress believe it is time to rally behind the Trinamool as it fights a resurgent BJP.
Isha, who spent his early years in Canada before winning back to back in 2011 and 2016, is seeking re-election from Sujapur Assembly constituency. While Noor had lost the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Trinamool sent her to the Rajya Sabha as well as made her the district president of the TMC. Now, the Congress might end up losing from Sujapur for the first time since Independence — with Ghani Khan Chowdhury himself retaining the seat from 1966 till his death in 2006, coming to earn the tile of ‘Barkat (blessing)’ in the region, and rising to the rank of Union Railway Minister.
His lasting popularity helped the Congress and Left win all the 12 seats in Malda district in 2016, with the two parties having an “understanding” at the time. Now, says a senior TMC leader of Malda town, who does not want to be named, “Mamata Banerjee continuously campaigned that the TMC is the only alternative to the BJP and that if the BJP comes, it will implement the NRC and CAA. The minority community knows it should vote for the TMC. We will win at least five to six seats in Malda on the strength of their support.”
If the Congress hoped that Noor’s absence from the campaign due to her Covid status would hurt the TMC, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The Congress appears to have lost ground not just to the TMC but also the BJP. In the 2006 Assembly elections, the BJP had won its first ever seat in Bengal with Swadhin Sarkar winning from Baishnabnagar in Malda. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won the parliamentary constituency of Maldaha-Uttar, as well as finished ahead in six of the 12 Assembly segments. Even Congress insiders admit that the BJP might retain these six seats, while the TMC could win two-three constituencies.
While the Congress is contesting nine seats this time, it has left three for the Left. In one constituency, the Forward Bloc has filed a candidate against the Congress.