First phase polls under high security in West Bengal (Poll Curtainraiser – West Bengal)

Kolkata, April 29 (Inditop) Left citadel West Bengal holds the first phase of the Lok Sabha polls in 14 of its 42 seats in the northern and Maoist-hit western region Thursday with the ruling Left Front facing a tough challenge from the newly-hitched Congress-Trinamool Congress alliance.

Over 16 million voters will be eligible to choose their nominees in the Lok Sabha from among 134 candidates, with the Congress taking on the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front, which has has had 32 years of uninterrupted rule in the state, in the bulk of the seats.

West Bengal has been sending the largest contingent of Left MPS over the years. Any dent in the communist strength would affect their efforts to install a Third Front government and lead to an automatic increase in the share of seats of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), of which the Trinamool is also a part now.

The three Maoist-hit districts of Bankura, Midnapore West and Purulia pose the biggest security challenge. The authorities have requisitioned three Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters for constant air surveillance and shortened polling time by two hours in six pockets most affected by Maoist violence — Jhargram, Binpur and Bandwan in Midnapore West and Balarampur, Bagmundi and Jaipur in Purulia.

“We have taken sensible precautions so that any Maoist designs can be thwarted,” state Chief Electoral Officer Debashis Sen told IANS.

The Election Commission has also ordered sealing the of West Bengal’s borders with Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar to prevent the ultras from sneaking in from the neighbouring states.

Among the prominent leaders in the fray is BJP and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, trying his luck from troubled Darjeeling, with support from the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha.

The Morcha is hoping to realise its dreams of a new Gorkhaland state out of parts of northern Bengal with the help of the saffron party, which has been weakened after ties with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress snapped.

Nine constituencies in six north Bengal districts – Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda – are going to the hustings, and the activities of those demanding new states of Cooch Behar and Kamtapur out of parts of the region are also under the scanner.

Besides Jaswant Singh, other high profile candidates in this phase include Deepa Dasmunsi, the wife of ailing Congress heavyweight Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi who is contesting from his constituency Raiganj against CPI-M’s Bireshwar Lahiri and a formidable independent Abdul Karim Chowdhury.

The Left Front has been harping on the need for industrialisation, attacking the Congress and the BJP for failing to take pro-people steps during their reigns at the centre and asking the people to vote it so as to install a Third Front government in Delhi.

The Congress, led by party president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi, has launched scathing attacks on the Left for its alleged inability to ensure basic development in the state.

West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats. While 17 seats go to the polls May 7, the other 11 vote May 13.