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Bengal's 'red fort' faces challenge as voting begins Monday

Sunday April 17, 2011 02:55:30 PM, IANS

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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 violence.

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) elections.

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 combine.

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 districts.

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 partners.

He has also been talking about the "rectification measures" taken by the CPI-M which had in fact angered a substantial part of the electorate.

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 worries.





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Picture of the Day

Farooq Naikwadi, a counselor for Civil Services exams, addressing a workshop on the topic at Abdullah Ash Shae Auditorium, Mansoora in Malegaon April 09, 2011




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