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Malda South: Can Congress Save Ghani Khan's Turf or Will BJP or TMC Breach it?

Malda is witnessing a three-way contest between and at stake is stalwart Ghani Khan Chowdhury's legacy.

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Video Editor: Nitin Bisht

It’s almost noon. The sun is at its hottest at 43 degrees, but Isha Khan Choudhury, Congress candidate from Malda South is out on his campaign roadshow in Malda town’s English Bazaar. In contrast, his opponent from the BJP, Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury, who’s the sitting MLA from the English Bazaar seat, prefers to do her roadshows in the evening.

The heat and impatient party workers mean that Isha doesn’t have time for protracted interviews as the cavalcade passes by. That will have to wait for the evening. Flags of both the Congress and the CPI(M) flutter on the totos (e-rickshaws) that follow his open jeep. On the way, the party workers make him release a caged pigeon in order to bring him luck. This election, he needs all that he can get.

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Isha Khan Choudhary's Battle to Preserve Family Legacy

Isha Khan Choudhary is the nephew of Abu Barkat Ataur Ghani Khan Choudhary, former Union Minister from the Congress and Malda’s tallest leader till date. ‘Barkat Da’ as Ghani Khan Choudhary was known, is still revered in Malda for the development he brought to the district, including the establishment of the Malda Town Railway station. His political legacy which began in the 70s continues to be hailed years after his death in 2006. From 1980 to 2019, first the undivided Malda seat and the divided Malda North and Malda South seats remained with the Ghani Khan Choudhary family. However, that changed in 2019, when the BJP’s Khagen Murmu won the Malda North seat as two members of the family- Isha and his cousin Mausam Noor, who’d then recently defected to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) squared off against each other.

Thereafter, Malda South remained the only Ghani Khan bastion, with his brother and Isha’s father, Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury, retaining their seat by a narrow margin. 

Isha knows, therefore, that this is the responsibility of keeping Ghani Khan’s electoral legacy alive in Malda is on him. Mausam, after her 2019 loss, was sent to the Rajya Sabha by the TMC. He says he had the option to defect too but believes that Congress is the only party that espouses the stalwart’s values. Speaking to The Quint at his family residence in Kotwali, Isha says there is pressure of a similar split in opposition votes like in 2019, but a confidence that his work as a two-time MLA will see him through.

He also hit out at the TMC for not being part of the opposition INDIA bloc in West Bengal, this weakening the opposition in Malda,

“I feel that the public has made their mind already. This is my feeling after campaigning for a month or so. The public has decided that the NRC is not an issue anymore. They don’t want to be fooled by fear mongering of the ruling parties (BJP and TMC), and secondly, this is a national vote. And in a national vote the Congress is best suited to fight the BJP”, says Isha.

“That begs the question why the TMC left the alliance. This is what people want to know. Why would the TMC go alone because I don’t think that our high command was asking for very many seats in the end”, he adds.

He further asserts that being a 2-time MLA from Malda South, he’s more familiar with the region as opposed to Malda North where he was sent last minute to contest against Mausam at the insistence of the Congress high command.

Shanawaz Ali Raihan: The Oxford-Educated 'Son of the Soil'

On the other hand, in order to capitalise on its 2021 gains, the TMC has fielded 42-year-old Shahnawaz Ali Raihan- a political debutant and Oxford researcher. Raihan, who grew up in Malda South’s Kaliachak, flew down from the UK in March, directly into the heat and dust of the elections. His party hopes that his Muslim identity, coupled with that of being a young, educated local boy, will help draw the Congress votes towards him.

Speaking to The Quint, Raihan says that he’s doing his PhD from Oxford on Muslims and Marxists in West Bengal. But his research on Marxists did not drive away Mamata Banerjee, who’s known to be their biggest critic. His PhD advisor has sent him his best wishes, hoping that by the end of 2024, he’ll be a parliamentarian as well as a PhD. He has to take one more extension to finish his dissertation. The last two months have been very busy.

After his candidature was announced, the BJP painted a target on Raihan’s back for his involvement in the anti-CAA protests in the UK, even calling him an Islamist. Unfazed, Raihan says that it’s not his Muslim identity that forms the centre of his poll campaign but rather his identity as a son of the soil and a true-blue Bengali.

“My son of the soil identity and also my linguistic identity (are my mainstay). This is not just in Malda, this is all over Bengal. The way the BJP is enforcing the Hindi language, the North Indian Hindu culture. In Bengal, we have our own notion of Hinduism which is more tolerant than BJP’s Hindutva ideology. For us, the BJP is anti-Bengali. They are against all the good values we Bengalis espouse”, he said.

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BJP's Sreerupa Mitra Chowdhury Takes on TMC and Congress

Sreerupa Mitra Chowdhury would have emerged as a natural contender of the BJP for the Malda South seat, having proved her mettle electorally time and again. In 2019, she gave a tough fight to Congress’ AH Khan Choudhary, losing only by approximately 8,000 votes. Thereafter, in 2021, she won the only assembly seat from the parliamentary constituency for the BJP.

Known as Nirbhaya Didi for the social work she’s done with women, Sreerupa’s campaign stands distinct from that of Raihan and Isha.

She has organised a 100 digital seminars at various pockets of the constituency to spread the message of “Modi 3.0”. In these seminars, small groups of people are gathered to listen to the Prime Minister’s speeches. They’re then told that electing a BJP representative would give them access to benefits like better drinking water and even a monorail to circumvent the city’s traffic congestion.

The evening campaigns are ones with music and dance. Pink vehicles line up the streets to symbolise Sreerupa’s commitment to women. There are baul singers and tribal dancers with whom she always shakes a leg.

Speaking to The Quint, Sreerupa refuses to answer how the PM’s recent speeches, castigating and demonising Muslims, affects her campaign in a Muslim-majority constituency.

“Our national spokespersons are talking (about it). I am limited to my election agenda right now so I’m not in a position to comment on what’s happening nationally”, she says.

She does say however that she will be the one to end Ghani Khan’s electoral legacy.

“It looks like it. It was almost done in 2019 and I have not left this ground. This is my 12th year and I’m working in one single territory. I’m trying to help people and make them understand that giving vote is not a simple thing. You have to be conscious and that’s why if you look today, I’m doing this digital seminar just a few days before elections. It’s called Modi 3.0. What I’m trying to do is to teach the voters who they should choose and why they should choose”, she said.

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