Pranab braves heat and mud in his battle for Jangipur (Lead)

May 5th, 2009 - 7:33 pm ICT by IANS  

By Soudhriti Bhabani
Jangipur (West Bengal), May 5 (IANS)From early morning till late evening, a good part under a blazing sun, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee exhibits the same indefatigable spirit while wooing the electorate in his West Bengal constituency as he does in multi-tasking as the government’s chief diplomat and principal troubleshooter.

The senior Congress leader, who is seeking re-election, greets people with a traditional namaskar (folded hands) during his road shows criss-crossing the remote constituency in West Bengal’s border district of Murshidabad while standing in an open jeep.

Mukherjee, the number two in the Indian cabinet, is up against a relative political lightweight as he battles to retain Jangipur, 260 km from state capital Kolkata.

Having used his clout to bring in money and welfare projects to the backward area, Mukherjee is banking on his good work to see him through at the hustings.

Usually seen in dark suits at international conferences and while meeting foreign leaders, Mukherjee is now battling the heat and dust of the rural, underdeveloped constituency in white cotton kurta-pyjama or a billowing dhoti, covering his head with a cap when the afternoon sun gets too harsh in temperatures hovering at 46 degrees Celsius.

The over one million electorate, includes 700,000 labourers who make bidis (leaf rolled tobacco).

The Congress stalwart is banking on the work he has done in the constituency in the last five years - a plant to purify the water of arsenic poisoning, an endemic problem here, as well as setting up schools for children.

“Given another chance, I shall carry forward the work,” he tells the electorate at meetings.

Mukherjee greets the people lining the roads or peeping from their windows and rooftops in villages and small towns for a glimpse of him.

The roadshows, that begin early in the morning, continue till 2 p.m. The next three hours is reserved for lunch and some rest in the huts of local village-level Congress leaders, who seem over the moon at the opportunity to host one of the most important men in the country.

The campaign resumes at 5 p.m., and continues for five hours, with more road shows besides meetings and rallies in the Muslim-majority Jangipur that had given the Congress stalwart his first taste of Lok Sabha victory in 2004.

The win, as Mukherjee has confessed, helped remove the tag of “rootless wanderer” given to him for his inability to enter the Lok Sabha despite being in politics since the late 1960s.

“I am indebted to the people here. I have tried hard to solve their problems in the last five years,” he said.

For the people of Jangipur, the top priority now is to find an answer to the problem of land erosion that has seen acres of land and households going under the raging waves of the Padma river.

“Soil erosion is a major problem. The situation is more acute at Sakalipur, Kantakhali, Garjangla and Bilbara area,” Amirul Islam of Lalgola told IANS.

“Sakalipur High School, from where I got my basic education, was submerged in the Padma river in March last year. It also engulfed a BSF (Border Security Force) camp in Birpara area,” he said.

Mukherjee claims he is doing his bit.

“We’ve recognised this issue as a national problem and included it in the 10th as well as 11th Five Year Plans,” he said at a public meeting.

“We’re sure that this problem can be dealt with coordinated efforts in the near future,” he added. He has promised to build a campus of the Aligarh Muslim University in Murshidabad - the only Muslim majority district in the state.

Arsenic contamination of groundwater, electricity and improvement of roads are the other issues that matter to the voters, who have always elected CPI-M nominees in the polls since 1977, till Mukherjee overturned the script in 2004.

Mukherjee loyalists claim their leader will win on the strength of the work that he has done over the last five years.

Murshidabad is one of the most arsenic affected districts in the country and Mukherjee’s aides say that under his initiative work has started on a plant to purify water of arsenic. Some people in the constituency are already benefiting.

During the last five years, the number of schools for children who roll bidis has increased from 40 to 140, and 7,000 youngsters are reaping the fruits of the scheme.

The minister’s rival, Jangipur municipality chairman and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Mirganka Bhattacharya, is relying on small and medium sized meetings besides rallies by his senior party leaders in his maiden Lok Sabha contest.

“It will be a very close fight between the two contestants,” CPI-M central committee member Binoy Konar told IANS.

“We are optimistic of winning the seat this time. We are getting very good response there,” Konar said, referring to the good showing of his party in the Murshidabad panchayat polls last year.

In 2004, Mukherjee defeated Abul Hasnat Khan of the CPI-M by over 36,000 votes. Since then, Jangipur has been in the news as Mukherjee went on to play a crucial role in the UPA government, managing key portfolios like defence and finance.

The constituency goes to the polls May 7.

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