West Bengal is gearing up for Sunday's panchayat elections spread over 17 districts amidst tight security, even as 19 people have been killed and a central minister attacked in pre-poll violence.
Over three crore voters are expected to exercise their franchise in 44,186 booths to choose their nominees out of a total of 138,774 candidates in the biggest political exercise in rural West Bengal being held after five years since 1978.
Of them, 117,050 nominees are fighting for positions in the Gram Panchayats, the lowest tier of the local government, 19,354 in Panchayat Samities and 2,370 in Zilla Parishads.
Large contingents of paramilitary forces, police and the state armed police will be deployed in constituencies to maintain law and order during the elections in the three-tier panchayats.
Deputy Inspector General of Police (HQ) Narayan Ghosh said six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force, five companies of the Orissa State Armed Police in addition to the state's own 50,000 armed police personnel would be deployed for the polls.
Sources said 15 to 20 per cent of the total 44,186 booths have been officially identified as 'sensitive'. Altogether 72,380 counting personnel and 251,000 persons including government employees and school teachers have been deployed on poll duty.
The CPI (M) has already secured 5,897 uncontested wins. The Left Front as a whole has 6,222 seats. Comparatively, the opposition has got uncontested wins in only 20 seats (Trinamool Congress-8, Congress 12).
The Trinamool Congress and its poll ally the Bharatiya Janata Party, however, claimed that 23,000 of their nominees were prevented from filing nominations due to CPI (M)'s 'terror tactics' in the run up to the polls.
The CPI (M) denied the charge saying it was the 'organisational failure' of the Trinamool Congress-BJP field candidates.
Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is probably facing his toughest test since he assumed power succeeding Jyoti Basu. Not only the opposition, but also some Front partners, more particularly the Revolutionary Socialist Party have been vocal against the CPI (M) for 'repression' on political opponents.
Violence at Chopra in North Dinajpur involving the CPI (M) and Congress activists, the attack on union minister Tapan Sikdar and the attacks on RSP ministers Biswanath Chowdhury and Amar Chowdhury allegedly by CPI (M) activists have unnerved the corridors of power.
Taking a serious view of the attack on Sikdar, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani conveyed his unhappiness and anguish to Bhattacharya and asked him to ensure no such incident recurred.
The CPI (M) admitted that party 'supporters' were involved in the attack, but denied involvement of partymen.
Before the political row over the attack could die down, activists allegedly belonging to CPI (M) jeered Public Works Department minister Amar Chowdhury while he was campaigning for the polls.
"The CPI (M) will win the panchayat elections in any case. Still they are attacking other political parties including us," RSP state secretary Debabrata Bandhopadhyay said.
"The truth is the CPI (M) is afraid. Their senior leaders do not have full control over the lower-level activists. They are afraid of factionalism. The CPI (M) does not want to take any chances," he said after the septuagenarian PWD minister, also a senior RSP leader, had to run for over a kilometre and take shelter in party leader's house on Tuesday night.
Earlier in widespread violence last week, nine people lost their lives in clashes between CPI (M) and Congress workers in Chopra village of North Dinajpur. A Congress demand to postpone the poll at Chopra was turned down by the state election commission.
While reacting to the allegations of 'big brotherly' attitude often levelled by smaller Left parties CPI (M) stalwart Biman Bose said he did not think 'any partner would want the CPI (M) to become weak.'
Asked whether anti-CPI (M) feelings in the Left Front was on the rise, Bose said, "There will always be unity in the Left Front."
Analysts are debating how far the main opposition combine of Trinamool Congress and the BJP will go to overthrow the Left Front government and whether it would be able to cash in on the internal bickering within the Front.
Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee has made a demand for President's Rule a driving force in her campaign.
But according to West Bengal Pradesh Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee said, "It is applicable only when a state is facing external aggression, internal disturbance, or when the constitutional machinery has failed. If Trinamool and BJP want the Centre to intervene let them do it. After all they are in power at the Centre."