First Family steers clear of Nalhati bypoll

Calcutta, Jan. 25: The President's family has decided not to stake claim to the Nalhati Assembly seat, vacated by his son, in order to spare him embarrassment in the event of a defeat in next month's bypoll.

Chitralekha, wife of Jangipur MP Abhijit Mukherjee and daughter-in-law of President Pranab Mukherjee, said today that she wanted to contest the polls but declined to do so "since my family does not want me to".

Sources said the family felt that if a member of the household loses the election, it would be "hugely embarrassing" for the President. Abhijit's intemperate comments during the turmoil triggered by the Delhi gangrape had upset the President, a stickler for decorum, and Chitralekha was among the family members who spoke out and compelled her husband to apologise.

Contacted tonight, Chitralekha told The Telegraph: "I had wanted to contest the Nalhati seat after my husband vacated it, provided the Congress cleared my name. But now I am not willing."

Asked for the reason, Chitralekha initially said "no comments". Asked again, she replied: "My family does not want me to contest the Nalhati seat."

Chitralekha recalled that she had travelled extensively in the constituency and reached out to the people during the campaign for her husband in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly polls.

The Congress is set to nominate a local leader from Birbhum for the February 23 bypoll, the result of which will be declared on February 28. Abhijit, who had won the Assembly seat in 2011, became an MP from Jangipur, which his father Pranab Mukherjee had vacated to become President.

Shakeel Ahmed, AICC's Bengal in-charge, said from Delhi: "Abhijit did not suggest his wife's name when I discussed a probable candidate for Nalhati with him as he had vacated the seat."

But Shakeel said Chitralekha's name was on the list of three he received from the Bengal Congress, adding that he had sent it to the Congress president for the final decision.

"Since Abhijit himself does not want his wife to contest, we will have to choose a local-level candidate for Nalhati," Shakeel added.

Abhijit today called on state Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya at the Congress headquarters in Calcutta to propose Murarui block president Abdur Rahman's name as the nominee for Nalhati. Birbhum Congress district president Syed Siraj Jigmi also accompanied the two.

"Abdur Rahman is our probable candidate for Nalhati after Abhijitbabu proposed his name during an interaction with the PCC chief. But the name has to be finally announced from Delhi by the party high command," Jigmi said.

Congress sources suggested two reasons for Chitralekha's reluctance to contest.

One, the party "is not very confident of victory" in Nalhati, going by the results of the Assembly polls in 2011 and the municipal elections last year.

In Nalhati, Abhijit had defeated the Forward Bloc nominee by a little over 15,000 votes when the Congress and Trinamul were allies.

"But since then things have changed," said a district Congress leader from Birbhum. "Now there is no alliance. So, it will be a much tougher contest."

In the Nalhati municipality polls in 2012, the Congress had lost to Trinamul.

With the BJP emerging as a factor, the anti-Left vote is expected to get splintered further. "Against this backdrop, Abhijitbabu does not want his wife to enter the fray risking her electoral fate," a Congress leader said.

A second, perhaps more important, reason is also at play. The family feels that a loss could embarrass the President. "We have a feeling that it is this eventuality which has heavily weighed on Abhijit's mind," a Congress leader said.

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