Bengal set for first phase polling, over 73 lakh voters to decide fate of candidates in 30 seats

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Kolkata, Mar 26 (PTI) More than 73 lakh voters in West Bengal will decide the fate of 191 candidates across 30 assembly segments, most of which are in the once-Naxal- affected Jungle Mahal region, as the state goes to the polls in the first phase on Saturday.

The elections will be held amid tight security with the Election Commission deploying around 684 companies of central forces that would guard 10,288 polling booths housed in 7,061 premises, officials said.

Besides, the state police will also be deployed at strategic locations, they added.

In the first phase, polling will take place amid strict COVID-19 guidelines in all nine seats in Purulia, four in Bankura, four in Jhargram and six in Paschim Medinipur, besides the seven seats in high-stakes Purba Medinipur -- the home ground of BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari.

The TMC and BJP have fielded candidates in 29 seats each, while the Left-Congress-ISF alliance has put up candidates in all 30 seats, even as there are 'friendly fights' in some.

In Jhargram, 11 paramilitary personnel will be deployed per booth, the highest for any election held in the state so far, officials said.

'Declaring all 1,307 booths in 1,010 premises as Left Wing Extremist (LWE) areas in Jhargram, we have decided to deploy 127 companies of the central forces only for booth management,' an Election Commission official told PTI.

Another 14 companies of central forces will be used as Quick Response Teams (QRTs), one company for the maintenance of strong room and another two companies will be kept reserved as district and sub-divisional striking force, he said.

Altogether, 144 companies of central forces will be deployed in Jhargram for the election, he added.

In the other districts, an average of six paramilitary personnel will be deployed per booth, officials said.

Purulia has the highest deployment of forces with 185 companies being deputed in 3,127 booths housed in 2,025 premises, they said.

Total 148 companies will be deployed at 2,437 booths in 1,686 premises in Purba Medinipur, they said.

Besides, 124 companies for 2,089 booths at 1,363 premises will be deployed in Paschim Medinipur, officials said.

Bankura, with 1,328 booths in 950 premises, has got 83 companies of central forces for the first phase, they said.

Each company of the central forces consists of 100 personnel.

Total 22,092 state police personnel will be deployed for the first phase, the EC official said.

Among the state police personnel to be deployed are 173 inspectors, 2,661 sub-inspectors or assistant sub- inspectors, 4,012 armed constables, 13,970 unarmed constables and 1,276 woman constables, he said.

'The central forces will be mainly deployed in and around the booths and the state force will be used for the maintenance of law and order. The constables will be used for the queue management,' the official said.

With the first phase, polling will be over in two districts -- Purulia and Jhargram.

The Trinamool Congress is fighting in 29 of the 30 seats, while supporting an Independent in the Joypur assembly segment in Purulia as the nomination of its official candidate Ujjwal Kumar was rejected by the EC due to a discrepancy.

Dibyajyoti Singhdeo, known to be a disgruntled TMC leader who filed the nomination as an Independent, is now backed by the party and is up against BJP's Narahari Mahato, who is a former Forward Bloc MP.

The Left Front has fielded Dhirendra Nath Mahato of Forward Bloc from the seat, while Congress fielded Phanibhushan Kumar as the two sides could not reach an agreement over the seat.

The BJP is also contesting the polls in 29 seats, while its ally AJSU Party of Jharkhand fielding a candidate in Baghmundi.

Congress heavyweight Nepal Mahato is the alliance candidate from the seat, even as the Forward Bloc fielded Debranjan Mahato. AJSU Party has nominated Ashutosh Mahato, while the TMC fielded Sushanta Mahato.

As per the official seat-sharing arrangements of the opposition alliance, the Left is fighting in 18 seats, Congress in 10 and ISF two. However, 'friendly fights' between the Left parties and Congress are on the anvil in some seats, including Baghmundi and Joypur, as negotiations could not be concluded.

Among the other notable seats going to the polls in the first phase is Salboni, where the CPI(M) has fielded former minister Susanta Ghosh against BJP's Rajib Kundu and TMC's Srikanta Mahata. Ghosh, the MLA of Garbeta from 1987 to 2016, was in jail in the skeleton recovery case and is at present out on bail.

The TMC has fielded actor June Malia, a known face in the Bengali silver screen, from the Medinipur seat against BJP's Samit Kumar Dash. The Left-led alliance candidate is Tarun Kumar Ghosh of the CPI.

In the Ranibandh seat, former Left minister Debalina Hembram is the CPI(M) candidate, while TMC has fielded Jyotsna Mandi and BJP nominated Kshudiram Tudu.

In another significant contest, Santhali actor Birbaha Hansda is fighting on a TMC ticket from Jhargram against BJP's Sukhamay Satpathy and CPI(M)'s youth leader Madhuja Sen Roy.

The seven seats in Purba Medinipur -- Patashpur, Kanthi Uttar, Bhagabanpur, Khejuri, Kanthi Dakshin, Ramnagar and Egra -- will also be closely watched in a prestige fight between the influential Adhikari family and the TMC.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee campaigned in a majority of the seats going to the polls in the first phase with her nephew and TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee touring the rest, asserting that they would not let Bengal to be ruled from Delhi or Gujarat, in an apparent reference to the BJP and the prime minister.

The BJP's charge was led by PM Narendra Modi who took part in multiple rallies over the last few weeks. Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP's national president JP Nadda also canvassed the areas, which are marked by the forests and because of that the region is identified as Jungle Mahal.

The BJP has promised a 'Sonar Bangla' if it forms government in the state, while the TMC has been campaigning on the works done by the Mamata Banerjee government in the last ten years.

The Left-Congress-ISF alliance candidates focussed more on door-to-door visits and small meetings on street- corners and village-level gatherings rather than mega rallies in the absence of a formidable face to take on the chief minister and the prime minister.

Total 73,80,942 voters will be exercising their franchise in the first phase.

Jungle Mahal is tribal-dominated and the BJP made massive inroads in the region with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, winning all five constituencies -- Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram, Medinipur and Bishnupur.

West Bengal will be voting in eight phases for 294 seats, starting on Friday. The votes will be counted on May 2.

PTI AMR SCH SOM SOM