From shaping foreign policy to wooing voters, Pranab in new role


Jangipur (West Bengal) : Far from airconditioned conference halls of diplomatic discussions, India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee Thursday stepped into the heat and dust of campaigning for votes in his largely rural constituency.

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The bespectacled minister, who is also the key troubleshooter of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), found himself in an unlikely role as he set about meeting voters in Jangipur, 260 km from the state capital Kolkata.

The state Congress president began his roadshow early morning from Noorpur near the India-Bangladesh border in an open jeep, greeting and shaking hands with people and cuddling youngsters.

Hundreds of people lined both sides of the convoy route with women blowing conches and showering him with petals.

Mukherjee had arrived in his constituency in Murshidabad district late Wednesday and immediately held a meeting with block Congress presidents to discuss campaign strategy.

“I don’t think the Third Front can do anything in the government because till now they have been unable to declare the names of the constituents,” Mukherjee told people in Suti in the constituency.

In a reference to the Congress’ pact with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, he said: “I worked for five years but the Congress alone can’t form the alliance. We have come together with Trinamool to work towards the development of the country.”

The veteran 74-year-old leader savoured the first direct election win – apart from several Rajya Sabha triumphs – in his four-decade political career only in 2004 during the last Lok Sabha polls from this backward constituency which has a large number of bidi factories.

When Mukherjee was nominated to contest from the only Muslim-majority district in the state in 2004, mainly at the instance of district Congress strongman Adhir Chowdhury, his rivals had dubbed him an outsider and scoffed at his bleak election record.

However, with Chowdhury’s help, Mukherjee carved out a 36,000 plus margin over his nearest rival of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and went on to play a big role in New Delhi for the last five years shaping the country’s various policies.

Mukherjee loyalists claim their leader would win on the strength of the work that he has done over the last five years — arranging micro-credit through banks and other financial institutions for farmers and self-help groups, building of roads in the border areas and providing funds to stop the erosion of the Ganges.

Murshidabad is one of the most arsenic-affected districts in the country, and his aides say under Mukherjee’s initiative work has started on an arsenic-free water plant in the area. Some people in the constituency are already benefiting.

He has already roped in advertising professional Srenik Sett to launch a high-pitch audiovisual campaign lauding his achievements both at the national level as also the work he has done in Jangipur which comprises eight blocks.

During the last five years, the number of schools under the child labour project has increased from 40 to 140 with 7,000 youngsters reaping the fruits of the scheme.