India: Millions vote peacefully in Left citadel West Bengal

4-18-06, 8:28 am

Kolkata: Around 65 percent of 6.8 million electorate voted Monday in three districts of West Bengal to mark the start of staggered assembly elections the ruling Left Front hopes to win for a record seventh term.

Election Commission officials put the vote turnout at over 65 percent in the districts of West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura hit by Maoist violence, and the authorities and independent analysts agreed it was a free, fair and peaceful 10-hour exercise.

Exit polls conducted by two prominent Bengali TV channels say the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) could win up to 42 of the 45 seats that went to the polls Monday.

There was no violence though Maoist guerrillas had called on voters to boycott the polls. Thousands of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed.

'There is no report of any violence,' Inspector General of Police Raj Kanojia said here. 'We are satisfied with the security arrangements,' added Deputy Election Commissioner Ananth Kumar.

According to the exit poll by Star Ananda-AC Nielson, the Left would bag 42 seats followed by the Congress with three. The poll predicted a washout for the Trinamool Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine.

Another poll by Kolkata TV-ORG Marg put the Left tally at 38 seats, followed by three each for the Trinamool-BJP and the Congress and one for smaller parties.

Former Election Commission observer K.J. Rao, covering the polls for a prominent Bengali TV news channel, said he was happy with the 'free, fair and peaceful polling'. Long queues were witnessed since morning as people, especially women, turned up in large numbers at polling stations.

Polling was held for 21 seats in West Midnapore, 11 in Purulia and 13 in Bankura. There were a total of 227 candidates. A total of 7,911 polling booths were set up and Medinipur was the largest constituency with 183,015 voters.

All eyes were on the eight constituencies racked by Maoist violence - Binpur, Salbani and Garbeta West in West Midnapore, Banduan in Purulia and Ranibandh, Raipur, Simlapal and Sarenga in Bankura district.

In West Midnapore, 250 companies of paramilitary forces - or some 25,000 troopers - were deployed while the other two districts were covered by over 150 companies. Chief Electoral Officer Debasis Sen said aerial surveillance was done with helicopters, partly to instil confidence among voters. About 3,000 digital cameras were installed in 40 percent of the booths to prevent false voting, impersonation and other malpractices, he said.

West Midnapore's Keshpur, where a whopping 95 percent votes were cast in some booths till afternoon, was under the scanner because of its history of political violence and the overwhelming winning margin of CPI-M candidates.

In the 2001 elections, the CPI-M captured the Keshpur seat by a record margin of over 108,000 votes when the total votes polled were 130,000.

This time, Rameswar Dolui is the CPI-M candidate.

Raids were conducted recently at the CPI-M office at Keshpur at the behest of the Election Commission. Trinamool Congress candidate Ashish Pramanik was also arrested for beating up a rival politician.

Some prominent seats where polling was held Monday were Garbeta East, Narayangarh, Datan and Nandanpur in West Midnapore.

For the first three seats, state ministers Susanta Ghosh, Surya Kanta Mishra and Nandagopal Bhattacharya were in the fray. Former swimmer Bula Chowdhury contested on the CPI-M ticket from Nandanpur.

The five-phase assembly elections are being held April 17, 22, 27 and May 2 and 8. The total electorate in West Bengal is 48.9 million and the state assembly has 294 seats.