Bengal panchayat polls begin Thursday amid tight security

Kolkata, July 10 (IANS) With helicopters hovering in the sky, the five-phase rural polls in West Bengal begin Thursday in the backdrop of intriguing court battles between two constitutional bodies, violence and complaints of terror and intimidation against the ruling Trinamool Congress.

Altogether 4.4 crore eligible voters will elect 58,865 representatives out of 1.77 lakh candidates in the three-tier panchayat bodies of the state - which is considered a model for the rural development system in the country - in the polls slated for July 11, 15, 19, 22 and 25.

In the first phase, the polls will be held in the three Maoist-hit districts of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia, under intensive security arrangements with helicopters keeping vigil from the air and the central paramilitary troopers manning every polling booth.

The issue of central security forces had been a bone of contention between the State Election Commission and the Mamata Banerjee-led government, with the latter being initially opposed to requisitioning uniformed personnel from the central paramilitary troopers.

Ahead of the polls, there were differences between the State Election Commission (SEC) and the state government over a plethora of issues. They almost fought a duel to determine the right to announce the poll schedule, and the primacy to conduct the polls, besides the security arrangements.

The disputes reached the legal corridor and finally the Supreme Court ordered a five-phase poll under the vigilance of a mix of central and state security forces.

However, the bitterness between the ruling party and the SEC seems far from over.

Having lost in the court battles with the SEC, the ruling party has made a big issue of the polls being scheduled around the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Trinamool leaders, including party supremo and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, have launched a verbal assault against the SEC and Commissioner Mira Pandey, amid criticism that such attacks were crossing the limits of decency.

Banerjee threatened to take revenge on the election panel "democratically" once the polls come to an end.

Politically, the polls are significant because of the triangular fights between the Trinamool, the Communist Party of India-Marxist led Left Front and the Congress, with the latter two charging the Trinamool with having adopted a tactics of coercion and intimidation to win the elections "unethically".

The opposition parties have been referring to the Trinamool winning about 6,250 contests unopposed and alleged that their party representatives were not allowed to file nominations.

The opposition parties have also accused the ruling party of using muscle power to force their candidates to withdraw from the race and prevent them from campaigning.

The Calcutta High Court stepped in five days back, urging the state administration and police to coordinate with the SEC on the security aspects.

Over a dozen people have been killed in the lead up to the polls and ministers in the previous Left Front government and opposition legislators were attacked ahead of the elections.

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