Jhargram – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces off today against one of his most formidable opponents as West Bengal, a state with a bloody history of political violence, goes to the polls.
Victory in the eastern region of 90 million would be a huge achievement for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it seeks to expand its power base beyond its Hindi-speaking northern heartlands.
Because of the need for extra security — thousands have died in political violence in West Bengal since the 1960s — the election is being held over eight phases concluding on April 29.
The campaign has seen huge rallies despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in India in recent weeks, including around 800,000 people attending one Modi event in Kolkata.
The north-eastern state of Assam also goes to the polls today in the first of three phases, while Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry vote on April 6. Results from all are due on May 2.
The election in West Bengal is the most important with the Hindu nationalist BJP pushing hard to win power in the Bengali-speaking region for the first time.
But the party faces a tough opponent in incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee, 66, a firebrand whose Trinamool Congress party ended three decades of rule in 2011.
The campaign has been marked by violence with the BJP claiming that more than 100 of its workers have been killed over the last two years, with the Trinamool making similar claims.
Activists from both parties have been shot or hacked to death, their bodies sometimes hung from trees.
Crude bombs, available on the black market for as little as 100 rupees (US$1.40), have also been used to kill, maim or intimidate voters.
The mutilated body of one BJP activist, Sukhdev Pramanik, was found face-down in a pond in the village of Chandpara in December.
Sumita, the mother of Shoubhik Dolai, a Trinamool activist killed last month, told AFP that “they pumped bullets into him… I got to know when I saw the news on TV.”
Arati Jerath, a political analyst, said Banerjee has been at the forefront of trying to form an “anti-Modi opposition front”.
In Assam, the BJP leads an alliance and is hopeful of retaining power against a strong coalition of Congress and smaller regional parties.
The state is a polarised polity along ethnic and religious lines, with illegal migration from Bangladesh one of the biggest campaign issues.
A “citizenship list” in Assam state left off almost two million people who were unable to prove they were Indian, many of them Muslims, a process many fear the BJP wants to roll out nationwide. — AFP