The first phase of crucial assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam begins today.
The Mamata Banerjee-led ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal faces a challenge from a newly-stitched Congress-Left Front alliance under the shadow of the purported Narada sting operation and the Kolkata flyover tragedy.
The staggered six-phase elections for 294 assembly seats in West Bengal are spread over seven days ending on May 5.
The other polling dates are April 11, 17, 21, 25 and 30.
Assam will have the second phase on April 11.
Today, amid the roar of helicopters, drones and the presence of central paramilitary troopers and state policemen, 18 constituencies in western districts - nine in Purulia, three in Bankura and six in West Midnapore in West Bengal - go to the polls. In 13 Maoist-affected constituencies, polling will end two hours early at 4pm.
Over 4mn 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 Congress 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 Janata 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.
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.
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% vote share in west 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.
Assam meanwhile will hold the first phase today for 65 constituencies to decide the fate of 539 candidates. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is seeking a mandate for the fifth term in Titabar constituency.
The BJP has pitted Lok Sabha MP and tea tribe leader Kamakhya Prasad Tasha against Gogoi.
Similarly, BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal will seek a mandate from Majuli. The Congress has fielded sitting legislator from the Rajib Lochan Pegu.
The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), led by perfume baron Moulana Badruddin Ajmal, is contesting in 27 seats while the regional party Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) is contesting in only 11 seats.
While most of the constituencies will see straight electoral battles between the ruling Congress and candidates put up by the BJP, AGP and Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) alliance in Upper Assam and in north bank of river Brahmaputra, the constituencies in Barak Valleys are likely to see a three-cornered fight between the Congress, the BJP-led alliance and AIUDF.
A polling officer carries an electronic voting machine and election material into a polling booth on the eve of Assam assembly elections in Diphu in Karbi Anglong district, some 215km from Guwahati yesterday.