NEW DELHI // Six northern districts of the state of West Bengal voted in state elections yesterday, the first of six phases of polling that could unseat the Left Front coalition that has governed for 34 years.
The six districts, with more than nine million registered voters, will elect candidates to 54 out of the 294 seats in the state legislature. By 4.30pm yesterday, about 74 per cent of the registered voters had turned out to cast their ballot, according to figures from the election commission.
The final phase of polling will occur on May 10, and the votes will be tallied and the results announced on May 13. The staggered election schedule was designed to secure voters and polling booths from attacks by Maoist militants, the chief election commissioner, SY Quraishi, had said in March.
The West Bengal elections have been widely anticipated to mark a shift in the political tenor of a state that has regularly voted communist parties back to power.
The expected victor in West bengal, the Trinamool Congress, is an important ally of the Indian National Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance Coalition in the central government. Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the Trinamool Congress and the minister for railways in the central government, has become a powerful regional politician.
The Trinamool Congress has encountered some friction with its coalition partners in the past, but analysts said that a win in West Bengal would strengthen its position in the United Progressive Alliance after three decades of Left Front rule in West Bengal.
A win for the Trinamool Congress would also add to the tally of regional parties that, due to coalition arithmetic, have a high degree of national influence. Other such parties include the Dravida Munnetra Kkazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh.
After three decades of left front rule in West Bengal, there is, said Buddhadeb Ghosh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences in Kolkata and a former West Bengal civil servant, "a certain fatigue with this government now".
The communists had lost their touch with the common man, Mr Ghosh said. "There has been a rise in unemployment, a downfall of industry, a poor rate of growth, and poor infrastructure development."
The most seminal event of the Left Front's most recent tenure in government was the failure to attract a Tata Motors plant to the town of Singur in 2007. The plant would have been a key part of the government's industrialization agenda, but when it acquired nearly 1,000 acres of land from farmers in the area the Left Front was seen as anti-poor and pro-rich, Mr Ghosh said.
The Tata Motors plant never materialized. In a recent interview to the NDTV news channel, the West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, admitted that there was some "malfunctioning in the government" with regard to land acquisition, and that, during the campaigns, "the mistakes committed in regard to Singur ... was a real problem".
A recent opinion poll, conducted by Nielsen, showed that the ruling Left Front would win only 74 of the 294 seats in the assembly.
Coinciding with the fall in the Left Front's popularity is the rise of a viable alternative: Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress. Nielsen's poll projected the Trinamool Congress to win 215 seats.
Ms Banerjee, who is the minister for railways in the central government, has become a powerful regional politician and an influential coalition ally for the country's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Indian National Congress party.
In her fiery election speeches, Ms Banerjee, 56, has been strongly critical of the Left's performance in the government and stated that her party could do far better. Over the weekend she promised voters that she would "make the [north Bengal] area Asia's Switzerland". She also said there would be more jobs and new railway lines.
Ms Banerjee has, Mr Ghosh said, "deliberately been vague about what her ideology precisely is. Many times she has said that the Trinamool Congress is the real left, indicating that it would work for the poor as the communists intended to do but failed. So I'm not sure we can say that a Trinamool Congress win would indicate the death of leftist ideologies and the arrival of market-driven economic policies."
Northern Bengal has traditionally not been a stronghold for the Trinamool Congress; in the 2006 elections, the Left Front won 36 out of the 49 constituencies that then made up the area's electorate.
Apart from the contest between the Trinamool Congress and the Left Front, the first phase of polling was watched closely for the performance of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the district of Darjeeling.
The GJM, formed in late 2007, has been campaigning for the creation of a separate state for Gorkhas, a Nepali-speaking ethnic group found in eastern India. This is the GJM's first foray into elections. Another rival party, the Gorkha National Liberation Front, has been participating in state elections since the mid-1990s.