The first phase of the 2021 Bengal Assembly election begins today, with over 73 lakh voters from 30 constituencies – covering the districts of Purulia and Jhargram, and parts of Bankura, West Medinipur and East Medinipur – heading to the polls to select from 191 candidates.
The ruling Trinamool Congress and the BJP – who have waged a high-stakes, sometimes shrill and often vicious campaign over the past few weeks – will both be eager to make a strong start. The Congress-Left alliance – widely expected to finish a distant third – is also in the mix.
A repeat of the 2016 election results will do nicely for the Trinamool; they claimed 26 of 30 seats. For this election they are contesting 29 seats and supporting an independent candidate in the other. The BJP is working on an identical formula – the 30th seat has been given to an ally. The Congress is fighting 10 seats, with 18 going to the Left – the majority alliance partner.
The battle for control of Bengal – which the BJP has never won – begins from the Jangalmahal region, which has a significant tribal population and is infamous for violence. Nevertheless, with a total of 60 seats on offer, winning here is key to winning the state.
Jangalmahal was dominated by Left parties until the 2009 Lok Sabha election. In the 2011 state election Ms Banerjee rode on the “poriborton (change)” wave, to win 41 seats. In 2016 she won again, although the results were was not as impressive.
Three years later, though, it was a very different story. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the might of the BJP election machine had rumbled into town, and voters in Purulia, Jhargram, Bankura, West Medinipur and East Medinipur all opted for the opposition party.
In today’s polling the Jhargam, Khejuri and Potashpur seats will be among those closely watched.
All three are held by the Trinamool, which has fielded actress Birbaha Hansda, sitting MLA Partha Pratim Das and Uttam Barik, respectively. They will face Sukhmoy Satpati, Santanu Pramanik and Dr. Ambujaksha Mahanti of the BJP, respectively.
Attention will also be on the Bankura seat, where over 40 per cent of the votes are from scheduled castes and tribes. Santhali actress Sayantika Banerjee will carry the Trinamool’s flag against Niladri Sekhar Dana. Congress’ Radha Rani Banerjee is also in the fray.
A lot of attention will also be on the East Medinipur seat, principally because former Nandigram MLA Suvendu Adhikari – the ex-Trinamool leader whose switch to the BJP triggered a bitter exchange with Mamata Banerjee – is believed to have considerable influence here.
The Trinamool has fielded actress June Maliah against the BJP’s Shamit Dash for this seat. The CPI’s Tarun Kumar Ghosh is also contesting. For himself Mr Adhikari has set up a high-stakes battle for Nandigram with Ms Banerjee, which will take place in the second phase on April 1.
Some of the issues expected to drive voters in these seats are unemployment and poor infrastructure – issues that both the BJP and Trinamool have addressed in their speeches.
For the ruling party Chief Minister Banerjee and her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee led the campaigning charge. The BJP rolled out the big guns – Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and party chief JP Nadda all campaigned.
All polling will begin at 7 am and finish at 6 pm; timings have been extended by an hour to ensure Covid protocols – wearing of face masks and maintaining social distancing – are followed. Central forces will assist state authorities in maintaining law and order during voting.
Overall, more than 22,000 state police personnel will be deployed across the nearly 11,000 polling booths set up in a state that has seen frequent political and poll-related violence.
After today Bengal will still have seven phases left – the decision to hold an eight-phase election has been slammed by the Trinamool amid suggestions it was engineered to benefit the BJP.
The results of all eight phases will be declared on May 2.