"Around 120 companies of central paramilitary troopers would be deployed to ensure free, fair and peaceful polls."
Kolkata, April 15 - Will the ruling Trinamool Congress further consolidate its position in West Bengal and emerge as a force nationally? Or will the communists succeed in reversing their downward slide? Or will the BJP make the difference between their success and failure in the Lok Sabha polls, beginning Thursday in the state?
The over 6.24 crore electorate spread across the 42 parliamentary constituencies in 19 districts of West Bengal will provide answers to these intriguing questions in a staggered five-phase balloting that starts with four constituencies in three north Bengal districts on the morrow.
Stretching from the globally famous hill tourist town of Darjeeling in the northern tip, to the world's largest mangrove delta Sunderbans that washes into the Bay of Bengal in the south, the elections in the eastern state have never been more colourful. A host of leading singers, actors, doctors, a world renowned magician and a couple of international footballers have thrown a challenge to veteran politicians.
Thursday's voting involves the keenly watched contests in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar and Alipurduar, covering treacherous mountain terrains, foothills, picturesque tea gardens and forests.
Darjeeling - for long a political flashpoint over the issue of a separate Gorkhaland state - is witness to a bitter fight between the Trinamool and the BJP, the latter again enjoying the endorsement of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the prominent hill-based party that helped return BJP's leader Jaswant Singh in 2009.
The main battle is between the BJP's S.S. Ahluwalia and football icon Bhaichung Bhutia of the Trinamool Congress, with the Communist Party of India-Marxist nominating Saman Pathak, and the Congress fielding Sujoy Ghatak.
Political watchers are keeping a close watch on Darjeeling as the duel between the GJM and the state's ruling party - led by the mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee - steadily reaches a crescendo on the Gorkhaland issue.
Five years back, the BJP's only good news in the state came from Darjeeling, with its veteran leader Jaswant Singh triumphing with the support of the GJM. The Left Front then won the three other seats. In all, the Trinamool won 19, with its allies Congress winning six and the Socialist Unity Centre of India - one seat. The Left Front won 15.
Keen to play a decisive role at the centre, Trianmool chief Banerjee has been concentrating on the four constituencies that go to polls Thursday to fulfil her objective of making her party the third largest in the country after the BJP and the Congress.
In meeting after meeting, Banerjee is referring to the development initiatives undertaken by her government, attacking the BJP and its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi for their role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
However, two things could queer the pitch for Banerjee. In 2009, she had an alliance with the Congress. And with opinion polls predicting a surge for it, the BJP is exhibiting a new-found confidence in the state. Backed by the GJM, the BJP is hoping to retain Darjeeling and improve its performances in the other three consituencies.
The Left Front, which won three seats last time, is striving for a repeat, though their leaders acknowledge the going would be tough.
The Congress, which has some strength in the four seats, has nominated candidates in all of them.
In all, 47 candidates - including four of the BSP - are in fray for the four seats, which have a total electorate of 6,014,258. Of these, 3,114,194 are males, 2,900,024 females and 50 others.
The highest number of candidates is in Darjeeling 13, and the lowest, 10, in Alipurduar.
Notwithstanding the arrest of Kamtapur Liberation Organisation's top militant Malkhan Singh alias Madhav Mondal from nearby Malda district, the district administrations of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar are taking no chances.
Around 120 companies of central paramilitary troopers would be deployed to ensure free, fair and peaceful polls.
The next four phases of polling will be held April 24 -, April 30 -, May 7 - and May 12 -.