Long queues panchayat polls begin in West Bengal

Kolkata, July 11 (IANS) Long lines of voters were seen outside the polling booths in the Maoist heartland in the first phase of the panchayat polls in West Bengal held Thursday amidst heavy security.

The opposition parties alleged intimidation and terror tactics on the part of the state's ruling Trinamool Congress.

In the first two hours, 12.94 percent voters exercised their franchise for 10,203 seats in Bankura, 13.56 in West Midnapore and 10.44 in Purulia districts for the three-tier rural governing bodies.

With helicopters keeping vigil from the skies, and 15,000 paramilitary troopers and 35,000 state police personnel on duty to maintain order and peace, 25,749 candidates are in fray for 8,273 gram panchayat, 1,799 panchayat samiti and 151 zilla parishad seats.

The belt, though now peaceful, is called Junglemahal because of the large stretches of forests where the Maoists have been active for years.

Already, 1,735 candidates have won uncontested, of whom 1,706 are from the Trinamool, triggering allegations from the opposition Left Front, the Congress and BJP that their nominees were not allowed to file their papers.

Leader of Opposition and Left Front spearhead Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) politburo member Surjya Kanta Mishra, who cast his vote at Belda of West Midnapore district, alleged that the Left Front polling agents were driven out of 10 booths in the area.

Altogether 4.4 crore eligible voters will elect 58,865 representatives from 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. The next phases of polls are slated for July 15, 19, 22 and 25. Counting will take place July 29.

The votes are being held against the backdrop of a series of bitter tussles between the state's Mamata Banerjee-led government and the State Election Commission (SEC) 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.

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, which began Thursday.

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

Politically, the polls are significant because of the triangular fights between the Trinamool, the CPI-M-led Left Front and the Congress.

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