Sonia, PM sound Cong panchayat poll bugle

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AT the foundation-laying ceremony for Ghani Khan Choudhury Institute of Engineering and Technology at Narayanpur in Malda Saturday, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi effectively kicked off the Congress' campaign for the panchayat elections in West Bengal.

The Rs 540 crore institute, funded by the HRD Ministry, is seen as an attempt by the Congress to strengthen its loosening grip on Malda, a Muslim-dominated district that has long been its bastion.

Sonia said the institute, named after late Congress strongman Ghani Khan Chowdhury, would spur growth of the economy of the area and stop flight of educated youth. Listing out the welfare schemes initiated by the Centre over the years, Sonia said the UPA government was committed to "total development of the people".

But to ensure development, India must fight communal forces. "Economic and social development of the nation should go hand in hand and for this we need to fight communal forces strongly," she said.

Sonia added, "The UPA government is also looking at the backward communities and minorities and steps are being taken to make them self-reliant. Sachar committee suggestions will be implemented and madrasas will extend special scholarships to women."

The prime minister said his government was giving importance to education "to fulfil India's growing economic requirements". "It will be difficult to maintain the growth rate without this," he added. "We have increased the share of education in GDP from 3.3 per cent to 4 per cent."

Singh and Sonia were joined on the dias by HRD Minister M M Pallam Raju, Governor M K Narayanan, Union ministers of state Abu Hasem Khan Chowdhury and Deepa Dasmunsi.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was invited but she stayed away. Even Tourism Minister Krishnendu Narayan Choudhury who was sent to receive the dignitaries at the helipad skipped the event. This, of course, didn't go down well with the Congress leaders. "The state government is politicising the issue. Krishnendu should have been present at the ceremony," said Dasmunsi.

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