Bengal’s first phase poll on Monday as TMC faces Left-Congress combine (Curtain-raiser)

Kolkata, April 3 (IANS) Under the shadow of the purported Narada sting operation and the city flyover tragedy, the month-long West Bengal assembly polls kick-start on Monday with the Mamata Banerjee-led ruling Trinamool Congress facing a challenge from a newly-stitched Congress-Left Front alliance.

The staggered six-phase elections for 294 assembly seats are spread over seven polling dates and will continue till May 5.

The other six polling dates are April 11, 17, 21, 25, 30 and May 5.

On Monday, amid the roar of choppers, drones and presence of central paramilitary troopers and state policemen, 18 constituencies in western districts — nine in Purulia, three in Bankura and six in West Midnapore — would go to the polls. In 13 Maoist-affected constituencies, polling will end two hours early at 4 p.m.

Over 40 lakh voters are eligible to decide the fate of 133 candidates across 4,203 polling stations comprising 4,945 booths — of which 1,962 are designated as critical.

Five years back, Banerjee’s Trinamool captured power in alliance with the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) in a historic election that toppled the 34-year-old Left Front rule — the world’s longest serving communist government in a multi-party democratic set-up.

The Trinamool had then won 184 seats, the Left Front 62, and the Congress 42. The Bharatiya Jananata Party (BJP) drew a blank, while other parties and Independents grabbed six seats, as the results paved the way for the state to have its first woman chief minister in Banerjee.

Since then, the Trinamool has fallen out with the Congress and its other erstwhile partners, but still managed to decimate the opposition in subsequent elections to the Lok Sabha, panchayats and municipal bodies, though the opposition complained of large-scale electoral malpractices and violence.

The charges have, however, prompted the Election Commission to tighten its grip on the conduct of the poll. It has deployed around 75,000 central police force personnel, besides announcing a slew of measures to ensure free and fair elections.

Opinion polls predict yet another victory for Trinamool, but the forecast of a narrow margin in the vote share between the ruling party and the Congress-LF alliance has prompted political analysts to dub the assembly battle as the toughest challenge so far for Banerjee’s party.

The very concept of an LF-Congress poll tie-up would have seemed outlandish even a few months ago, with the two forces known for their mutual animosity and bitter rivalry in the state since the pre-Independence days.

However, what was unthinkable is now a reality.

And the new-found bonhomie between the LF spearheaded by the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the Congress seems to be striking deep roots from the lower to the highest levels of the two parties.

The presence of Marxist leaders on stage during Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s election campaign is one such indication, though there are rumblings of dissent among the other LF partners about ‘big brother’ CPI-M’s dalliances with a party they have always loved to hate.

Riven by factional fights, lacking a charismatic leadership and hamstrung by a weak organisation, the BJP would be hard put to retain its surprisingly impressive 17 percent vote share in Bengal during the 2014 general elections when it was riding the crest of a Narendra Modi wave.

The pollsters have been predicting between 0-4 seats for the BJP this time.

The Narada sting video footage, which showed several top Trinamool leaders allegedly taking bribes in return for doling out favours to a fictitious company, has become a talking point, especially in urban areas.

It remains to be seen whether and to what extent it will affect the ruling party which has been rubbishing the videos.

Besides wooing the minorities, especially the Muslims who constitute 27.1 percent of the population, Banerjee has been touting her social security schemes like ‘Kanyashree’ (scholarships for minor girls), ‘Khadya Sathi’ (subsidised food grain at Rs.2 a kilo) and highlighting sops like scholarships, bicycles and automotive loans given by her government.

For the LF-Congress alliance, the biggest issue is “restoring democracy” and freeing Bengal from “dictatorship and violence, terror and intimidations” let loose by the Trinamool, while the BJP’s main poll promise is to “drive infiltrators” away.

The collapse of the Vivekananda Road flyover, that left a trail of death and destruction, has also triggered a political slugfest, with the rival parties pointing fingers at one another about corruption as the main cause for the collapse of the structure.

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