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Kolkata, Tragedies unfolding due to riverbank erosion and central and state governments’ apathy to effectively tackle the issue are likely to dominate voters’ minds in West Bengal’s Malda Dakshin seat in the Lok Sabha elections. Among the two remaining Congress-held Lok Sabha seats in the state – the other being Baharampur in neighbouring Murshidabad district – Malda Dakshin candidates, cutting across parties, are also expected to factor in the influence of former Congress patriarch ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury, whose legacy continues to influence the region even 18 years after his demise.

The Congress has passed on the representation mantle from an indisposed Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, Ghani Khan’s brother who won the seat without a break from the 2006 bypolls, to his son Isha Khan Choudhury.

Isha Khan is a former MLA from Sujapur and Baisnabnagar, two of the assembly segments of the parliamentary seat. Isha Khan, who is seen as dominant in this Muslim-majority seat which has nearly a 60 per cent minority population, further received a boost with the backing of the Left.

The BJP fielded Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury aka ‘Nirbhaya Didi’, a tag she earned for chairing a special task force on rape, trafficking and violence against women set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder incident.

The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, reposed its faith in Shanawaz Ali Raihan, a political greenhorn and research scholar at the Oxford University.

The 2021 state election results were perhaps the biggest shot in the arm for the TMC when it swept six of the seven assembly seats in this parliamentary segment, losing only English Bazar segment to the BJP from where Sreerupa is the sitting MLA. At least five of the seven assembly constituencies of Malda Dakshin are affected by significant losses in farmland and settlements along the Ganga. Also, the tragedy that often happens during monsoon due to the constant shift in river course has rendered lakhs of people homeless in the past few decades and stole their agricultural livelihood. “The Centre has drastically cut down on funds for anti-erosion measures along both banks of the Ganga and has passed the buck onto the shoulders of the state,” alleged Isha Khan.

“The state, on its part, is doing a shoddy job by building embankments with sandbags which is no more than a temporary solution,” he said, and alleged that fledgling corruption in the form of commission cuts fill up pockets of local TMC leaders and their trusted set of contractors.

“It’s a colossal waste of money from whichever angle you look at,” the Congress candidate said.

Raihan disagrees and blames central policies for people’s distress.

“The Centre is spending thousands of crores for beautification of river banks in Uttar Pradesh, but they haven’t spent a penny here to find a permanent solution to the erosion problem or provide relief to the displaced people,” he alleged.

Defending the state for its limited resources, the Trinamool Congress candidate argued, “The Rs 100 crore allotment for strengthening the embankments is the best this government can do under current circumstances.”

Sreerupa, on the other hand, has a different take on the issue.

“Displacement caused by land erosion forces thousands of people to migrate to places such as Kerala, Gujarat and Delhi every year in search of work. There, they witness the development ushered in by the Modi government and now aspire to have the same facilities in their home state,” she said while claiming increasing support for the BJP in the constituency.

“This is an election for ‘rashtra nirman’ (nation building), an election to ensure the country’s security. This is an election for Modi and no one else,” Sreeupa said, as she drew attention to the increasing popularity of the Prime Minister in Malda.

There is uniform agreement amongst all opposition candidates on the Ghani Khan factor still spinning magic in voters’ minds in the region. The disagreement, though, is about the nature of his legacy.

“People remember Ghani Khan with respect and gratefulness for his work. But they don’t like his successors in the family who have turned out to be disappointments. Moreover, the BJP is fighting dynasty politics across the country and the people of Malda now find us as a viable alternative to the Congress’ questionable legacy and Trinamool Congress’ corruption,” Sreerupa said.

Raihan said a significant section of the electorate are first-time voters who were born at the fag-end of the patriarch’s life or after he died in 2006.

“The Ghani myth does not touch them,” he said.

“His successors have hardly ever raised voices in Parliament for their people. They have largely remained mute when people sent them to shout about their distress,” he alleged.

Isha Khan, however, is confident of people’s unwavering love for his uncle ‘Barkatda’ (a name by which Ghani Khan was better known) filtering down to him. And he is counting on Trinamool Congress’ anti-incumbency for it.

“In 2021, the TMC created a panic over CAA and NRC, which swayed people to vote for them. That hype is now gone and people would no longer get manipulated by the TMC,” he said.

The seat, which had 15.75 lakh voters in 2019, will go to polls in the third phase on May 7. Five of the seven assembly seats of Malda Dakshin fall in Malda district, while two — Farakka and Samserganj — fall in adjacent Murshidabad district.

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