It is the Congress' alluvial belt. For three decades now, people here have always voted for the Congress even when Bengal turned red. In the first phase, all eyes are glued to North Dinajpur and Malda, where the Congress is taking on the Marxists in 21 Assembly seats.
Unlike the previous polls, when both the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress left the pitch for the Congress, this time neither the Marxists nor the Trinamool, which is the electoral ally of the Congress, are leaving anything to chance in Raiganj and Malda.
Of the nine assembly seats in Raiganj, Congress is contesting five - Raiganj, Kaliaganj, Goalpokhar, Chakulia and Karandighi while the Trinamool has fielded candidates in Islampur, Chopra, Hemtabad and Itahar.
From the time Priya Ranjan Das Munshi was elected Raiganj MP, the Congress became a force to reckon with in North Dinajpur. It was he who inducted wife Deepa Das Munshi into politics as an MLA from Goalpokhar. After Priya Ranjan Das Munshi fell ill, his wife contested the 2009 Lok Sabha polls from Raiganj and won. "The Congress has a strong base here right from the panchayat to the parliamentary level. No other political party today matches the strength of the Congress in this district," said Deepa Das Munshi. Her assertions are not unfounded. Congress took a strong lead of over 1,25000 votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls in Raiganj, Kaliaganj, Hemtabad, Goalpokhar, Islampur and Karandighi assembly constituencies that fall under the Raiganj parliamentary seat.
Two other assembly seats that have ensured a positive electoral harvest for the Congress are Chopra and Itahar in the Darjeeling and Balurghat Lok Sabha segments respectively. The fact that Mamata Banerjee took away Islampur and Hemtabad Assembly segments in addition to Itahar and Chopra has created a lot of heartburn in the Congress ranks. And this has strained the electoral alliance in North Dinajpur.
Upset over the seat-sharing deal, Deepa Das Munshi has thrown her weight behind dissident Congress leaders Chittaranjan Roy, a sitting Congress MLA, Hamidur Rahman, a former MLA, and Kanai Agarwal, the chairman of the Islampur Municipality, who are contesting as Independents from Hemtabad, Chopra and Islampur .
"The Congress leadership ditched us. They gave false hopes that I would be nominated from Hemtabad. But at the last moment, they denied me a ticket and instead asked me to back the Trinamool candidate," said Roy, who has won the Raiganj assembly seat twice.
Deepa Das Munshi is also irked at the Trinamool leadership is not extending necessary cooperation and canvassing for the Congress candidates in the five constituencies allotted to the party. Both she and Congress district president Mohit Sengupta, who is contesting from Raiganj seat, believe Congress would fare well in the district.
As things stand, Congress is expected to do well in Raiganj, Kaliaganj, Goalpokhar and Karandighi. Trinamool is likely to put up a strong fight in Islampur, where former MLA and party district president Karim Chowdhury is contesting, and in Itahar, where it has fielded former Congressman Amal Acharya. "But we are not ruling out a CPI(M) fightback. In 2006, the CPI(M) won seven seats and the Congress won Raiganj and Goalpokhar segments," said Karim Chowdhury.
Going back to the heydays of ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury in the 70s, Malda has traditionally been Congress' favourite hunting ground. Ghani Khan's pro-people development work has never failed to find favour with people, who always voted for him. Even after his death, Ghani Khan's sway over the people continued with his brother Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury returning a comprehensive mandate from the Malda parliamentary seat. After delimitation, Malda bagged an additional parliamentary seat in the form of the North Malda. Ghani Khan's niece, Mausam Benazir Noor, contested and was blessed with a resounding mandate.
In Sujapur, people voted for Ghani Khan's sister, Ruby Noor, four times and the trend continued with her daughter and brother AN Khan Chowdhury. The Ghani Khan effect ensured a positive harvest for the Congress across 12 assembly constituencies of Malda.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Mausam Noor boasted a clear lead in all assembly seats - Harishchandrapur, Chanchal, Malatipur, Ratua, Gazole, Old Malda and Habibpur - in North Malda parliamentary constituency. "Harishchandrapur, Chanchal, Old Malda and Gazole are positive seats for us. With the alliance with Trinamool in place, we expect to do well in the one-to-one fight against CPI(M)," said Mausam Noor.
Again, English Bazar, Manikchak, Mothabari, Vaishnabnagar and Sujapur assembly segments fall under South Malda constituency of AH Khan Chowdhury. Congress is confident of winning English Bazar, Sujapur, Mothabari and Vaishnabnagar. Sitting Congress MLA AN Khan Chowdhury is contesting from Sujapur.
The fresh face to watch out for is AH Khan Chowdhury's son Isha, who is contesting from Vaishnabnagar. "I am making my debut from the seat where my father contested and won. People have faith in our family and if elected I would strive to keep up with our tradition of working for the people," said Isha.
Two other Congress seats wort watching would be English Bazar, which is being contested by sitting MLA Krishnendu Chowdhury, and Chanchal where Congress has fielded sitting MLA Asif Mehboob. The Trinamool nominee to watch out for is district president and sitting MLA Sabitri Mitra, who has crossed over from the Congress, and is contesting from Manikchak. Gautam Chakrabarty, who is contesting from Malatipur, is also expected to put up a strong challenge for the CPI(M).
That Trinamool has taken away three seats -Malatipur, Habibpur and Manikchak - from the Congress has created a lot of heartburn. Congress has fielded an Independent candidate against the Trinamool in Malatipur while the Trinamool has put up Independents in Vaishnabnagar, Chanchal and Old Malda.