West Bengal recorded an approximate voter turnout of 79.79% on Saturday in the first phase of the Assembly elections, after days of high-decibel campaigning that saw defections, violence and bitter exchanges. Voters in 30 constituencies will choose their representatives in this phase.

Voting started at 7 am and continued till 6.30 pm. Those with coronavirus symptoms were able to vote between 5 pm and 6.30 pm, The Hindu reported.

More than 73 lakh voters will decide the fate of 91 candidates who are in the fray in five districts, most of which fall in the Jungle Mahal region, which was once the stronghold of Maoists.

Polling took place in all nine seats in Purulia, four in Bankura, four in Jhargram, six in Paschim Medinipur, and the seven seats in Purba Medinipur, the home ground of Bharatiya Janata Party leader Suvendu Adhikari.

The Trinamool Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party have fielded candidates in 29 seats each, while the Left-Congress-Indian Secular Front alliance will jointly contest on all 30 seats.

The contest in the first phase is expected to be a straight fight between the BJP and ruling TMC, although the saffron party is likely to have an upper hand as it had managed to win most of the Parliamentary seats in the region in the 2019 General Elections.

Trinamool Congress approaches Election Commission

Hours after voting began on Friday, a delegation of Trinamool Congress leaders approached the Election Commission to “raise some serious concerns”, ANI reported. They met the Chief Electoral Officer in Kolkata.

Party leader Derek O’ Brien alleged that there were certain discrepancies in the data issued by the Election Commission. “Voter turnout for ACs Kanthi Dakshin (216) and Kanthi Uttar (213) at 9:13am was 18.47% and 18.95% respectively, four mins later at 9.17am, the voter turnout reduced to 10.60% and 9:40%,” he said. “Such discrepancy raises question on genuineness of data issued by EC.”

TMC leader Sudip Bandyopadhyay said that the BJP had submitted a memorandum to the poll panel, requesting it to change the system of appointing booth agents wherein the agent must be a voter of the concerned booth. The BJP demanded to lift this criteria so that anyone could be allowed to become the agent at a poll booth, he said.

“The new system is not acceptable to us,” the TMC leader added. “We demand that from the next phase the polling agent must be local of the concerned polling booth.”

Bharatiya Janata Party’s West Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh refuted suggestions that the party was rigging the election. “The TMC knows that it is losing and that’s why it is saying all this,” he claimed, according to ANI. “TMC and Mamata Banerjee are under pressure and that is why they are saying such things.

Meanwhile a BJP delegation, led by party leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, also met the Election Commission after an alleged attack by Trinamool Congress supporters on the car of Adhikari’s brother Soumendu Adhikari, ANI reported.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Vijayvargiya said that the election was the first one in six years with fewer instances of rigging and violence. “To avoid even 10% of such cases in second phase [of polls] we demanded Election Commission to round up anti-social elements,” he said.

Earlier, Soumendu Adhikari alleged that TMC supporters attacked his car and beat up his driver in Contai town of East Midnapur district, in an attempt to rig the elections, NDTV reported.

“Under the leadership of the TMC block President, Ram Govind Das and his wife, poll rigging was underway at three booths,” Adhikari told NDTV. “They attacked my car and thrashed my driver as me coming here created problems for them.”

The fight

In 2016, TMC had won 27 out of the 30 seats while two were bagged by the Congress. However, equations changed after BJP made inroads in the tribal-dominated Jungle Mahal region, winning all five Lok Sabha constituencies, Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram, Medinipur and Bishnupur, in 2019, according to The Indian Express.

This time too, the BJP has made a serious bid for a victory in the state, with top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, campaigning heavily to dislodge Mamata Banerjee and her party, which has ruled the state since 2011.

Building upon a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment against Banerjee’s government, the BJP has projected itself as the only option for people of Bengal to get out of what the saffron party says is a cycle of corruption and repression by the TMC leadership. Modi and his lieutenants have promised to build a “Sonar Bangla [golden Bengal]” if voted to power.

On the TMC front, Banerjee led the charge as she campaigned in a majority of the seats going to the polls in the first phase, despite her injuries. Banerjee has been addressing rallies on a wheelchair since, and has spoken about her injuries, asserting that this would not stop her from taking on the BJP.

Key contests

One of the seats to watch out for is the Kanthi Dakshin seat in Purba Medinipur, where equations changed after Suvendu Adhikari, once a confidante of Banerjee, and his father, Sisir Adhikari, switched sides to the BJP. The constituency had been held by the Adhikari family from 2001 till 2017 when then sitting MLA Dibyendu Adhikari, brother of Suvendu Adhikari left the seat to represent the party in Parliament, according to The Indian Express.

The TMC has pitted Jyotirmoy Kar against Arup Kumar Das from BJP and Anulup Panda from the Communist Party of India.

Among the other notable contests is Salboni constituency, 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 on 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 Communist Party of India.

Tight security

Tight security arrangements have been made by the Election Commission to avoid any untoward incidents on Saturday.

In Jhargram, 11 paramilitary personnel will be deployed per booth – the highest for any election held in the state so far, according to PTI.

“Declaring all 1,307 booths in 1,010 premises as Left Wing Extremist 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, one company for the maintenance of strong room and two other teams will remain reserved as district and sub-divisional striking force, he said. Altogether, 144 companies of central forces will be deployed in Jhargram for the election.

In the other districts, an average of six paramilitary personnel will be deployed per booth, officials 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 election official said. “The constables will be used for queue management.”

The Election Commission has also taken a series of measures in its effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus. It has increased the number of polling stations, extended the voting time by one hour at most places and sanitisation of electronic voting machines has been made mandatory. Authorities will also conduct temperature checks at entry points and voters will be provided hand sanitizers, soap and water.