Kolkata: Will West
Bengal's 34-year-old "red fort" crumble in a combined Trinamool
Congress-Congress charge? Over 56 million voters will provide the
answer when the state ruled by the world's longest serving
communist-led government in a multi-party democracy goes to the
polls in six phases from Monday.
The assembly elections are widely regarded as the toughest challenge
faced by the 10-party Left Front that came to power in 1977 riding
on the popular discontent over the excesses of the Emergency imposed
by Indira Gandhi.
Since then, the Left Front led by the Communist Party of
India-Marxist (CPI-M) has entrenched itself among the rural masses
as it empowered the poor socio-economically by undertaking
large-scale land reforms.
The "Operation Barga" enabled sharecroppers to retain 50-75 percent
of their crops and increased foodgrain production through Bodo (a
kind of paddy) cultivation.
Between 1977 and early 2008, with the villages and small towns
endorsing its rule, the Left Front steamrolled all opposition in
elections year after year.
However, the state also saw flight of capital, factories downing
shutters due to industrial disputes and rising unemployment leaving
large sections of educated classes disillusioned.
During the 2006 elections to the 294-seat assembly, the Left Front
won a landslide victory, gaining three-fourth majority. The CPI-M
itself got an absolute majority claiming 176 seats, leaving
opposition parties Trinamool Congress and Congress way behind with
30 and 21 seats respectively.
But the electoral script started changing soon after, as Chief
Minister Buddahdeb Bhattacharjee's pet industrialisation projects
like Tata Motors' small car Nano plant in Hooghly district's Singur
and a chemical hub venture in Nandigram of East Midnapore district
triggered peasants' unrest.
Spearheaded by the Trinamool led by Mamata Banerjee, the railway
minister, the political parties and civil society carried out
intense anti-land acquisition agitations in both areas, triggering
Ultimately Tata Motors had to shift the proposed Singur plant to
Gujarat while the chemical hub project was scrapped.
Banking on the anti-land acquisition stirs, the Trinamool
consolidated its position among large sections of rural masses and
minorities - so long aligned with the Left Front - and made
substantial gains in the 2008 panchayat (rural autonomous bodies)
The party teamed up with the Congress to decimate the Left in the
Lok Sabha polls a year later. Out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, the
Trinamool grabbed 19, the Congress 6, and another alliance Socialist
Unity Centre of India - Communist (SUCI-C) 1. The Left Front could
win only 15 seats.
The anti-Left Front trend was repeated in the civic polls and
by-elections to a number of assembly constituencies last year.
Stunned by the series of electoral setbacks, the Left Front appears
on a sticky wicket against a determined challenge from the Trinamool-Congress
The Trinamool is contesting 226 seats, leaving 65 to the Congress,
two to the SUCI-C and another to the Nationalist Congress Party.
Mamata Banerjee, the opposition's chief ministerial nominee, has
been campaigning extensively, urging the people to usher in a change
of regime for better governance and an end to CPI-M misrule.
In meeting after meeting, the firebrand leader is harping on the
"atrocities" committed by the CPI-M on the people and promising a
new dawn of development and jobs if the Trinamool-Congress combine
was voted to power.
Bhattacharjee, who largely kept himself confined to his constituency
of Jadavpur where he faces a tough fight, has now started moving to
The chief minister is telling the electorate about the "corruption"
and "misgovernance" of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)
government at the centre, where the Congress and the Trinamool are
He has also been talking about the "rectification measures" taken by
the CPI-M which had in fact angered a substantial part of the
The Congress has roped in star campaigners like party chief Sonia
Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who took on the Left
Front for its non-performance during its over three-decade-long rule
and its failure to usher in development in all spheres.
The staggered polling begins Monday, when 54 constituencies in six
north Bengal districts would vote.
The next phases will be held April 23 (50 constituencies), April 27
(75), May 3 (63), May 7 (38) and May 10 (14).
The votes will be counted May 13.
For the authorities it is a mammoth task to arrange for foolproof
polling in the state's 51,919 main polling stations and 18,205
auxiliary booths spread over 88,752 sq km, from remote Darjeeling
hills in the north and marshy Sunderbans in the south.
Massive security arrangements have been made in view of the volatile
condition in the Darjeeling hills and also the Maoist threat in the
three western districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura.
The largescale clashes between the ruling alliance and the
opposition parties in various areas have also added to the security