WB, Assam set for 1st phase polling on Saturday, CM Sonowal among contestants

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(Eds: Recasts intro, minor edits) Kolkata/Guwahati, Mar 26 (PTI) Politically volatile states of West Bengal and Assam will go to polls in the first phase of assembly elections on Saturday amid a resurgent COVID-19 crisis to decide the fate of a number of top politicians including Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

The assembly elections to the two states apart from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry are the first, after the state polls in Bihar, to be held during the pandemic.

Polling will be held in 30 of the 294 constituencies of West Bengal and 47 of the 126 in Assam which together have 1.54 crore eligible voters who can exercise their franchise on Saturday.

The polling, mostly in the Jungalmahal area of West Bengal, where the BJP had managed to win most of the seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, will likely witness a straight contest between the saffron party and the ruling TMC.

A staggering 684 companies of central paramilitary forces, each having about 100 men and officers, have been deployed to guard 10,288 polling booths housed in 7,061 premises, officials said. Thousands of state police personnel will also be positioned at vulnerable places to thwart attempts at vitiating the elections.

West Bengal has been caught in the throes of violent political clashes between the TMC and BJP supporters which have claimed several lives on both sides.

The first phase of poll in Assam will decide the fate of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, Speaker Hitendranath Goswami, state Congress chief Ripun Borah and a host of ministers.

Most of these seats will likely witness triangular contest between the ruling BJP-AGP alliance, the Congress-led opposition grand alliance and the newly formed Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP).

West Bengal will have an eight-phase poll, while in Assam the exercise will be completed in three phases on March 27, April 1 and 6.

Altogether 264 candidates, including 23 women, are in the fray.

Central forces will assist the state police in maintaining law and order during the polling, a senior police officer said without divulging their numbers. The official said there will be enough security personnel to cover all polling stations.

The ruling BJP is contesting 39 seats and its partner AGP 10. The two allies are engaged in friendly contest in Lakhimpur and Naharkatiya constituencies.

The grand alliance is contesting all the seats, with the Congress party putting up candidates in 43, and the AIUDF, CPI(ML-L), RJD and Anchalik Gana Morcha (contesting as Independent) in one each.

The newly formed AJP is in the fray in 41 seats, while there are 78 Independents, including 19 candidates of the newly formed Raijor Dal who are also contesting as Independents.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is trying his luck from Majuli (ST) seat where he is locked in a direct contest with three-time former Congress MLA and former minister Rajib Lochan Pegu.

Speaker of the outgoing assembly Hitendranath Goswami is also locked in a direct contest with former Congress MLA Rana Goswami in Jorhat.

Titabor, another high-profile seat that was held by former chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress for four successive terms will likely see a direct contest between Bhaskar Jyoti Barua of the Congress and former MLA Hemanta Kalita. Gogoi, the tallest Congress leader in the state, died last year.

BJP Ministers Ranjit Dutta (Behali), Naba Kumar Doley (Dhakuakha), Jogen Mohan (Mahmora), Terash Gowala (Duliajan) and Sanjoy Kishan (Tinsukia) are all locked in triangular contest with Congress or its alliance partners and the AJP.

AGP Ministers Atul Bora and Keshab Mahanta are in the electoral arena in Bokakhat and Kaliabor.

Congress Legislature Party leader Debabrata Saikia and state Congress president Ripun Borah are in the fray from Nazira and Gohpur respectively.

Activist and Raijor Dal leader Akhil Gogoi, in jail for his alleged role in the violent anti-CAA protests, is contesting as an Independent from Sivasagar.

AJP president Lurinjyoti Gogoi is contesting from Duliajan and Naharkatiya, and is pitted against Congress and BJP nominees in both the constituencies.

The first phase of polling in West Bengal will see voting in all the 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 turf 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 its nominee in all 30 seats. 'Friendly fights' will take place in some constituencies.

In Jhargram, 11 paramilitary personnel will be deployed per booth, the highest for any election held in the state so far, officials said. In the other districts, an average of six paramilitary personnel will be deployed at every polling booth, officials said.

The Trinamool Congress is contesting 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.

The BJP is also contesting 29 seats and backing ally AJSU Party of Jharkhand in Baghmundi.

Among the notable seats going to the polls in the first phase are 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.

Seven skeletons had been exhumed from behind his house in West Midnapore in 2011 arousing suspicion that Ghosh, a minister in the Jyoti Basu and Bhuddhadeb Bhattacharjee governments, was involved in the killing of seven Trinamool Congress activists in 2002.

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

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 beause of a prestige fight between the influential Adhikari family, which has gone over to the BJP, and the TMC. PTI DG/AMR/SACH SOM JRC SK SK