Challenge for Congress in Bengal's Second Phase Polling
The West Bengal poll caravan Thursday moves to what is termed the Congress belt - parts of the state where the 128-year old party still retains its influence despite losing much of its base elsewhere to the ruling Trinamool Congress.
Six seats spread over four districts - Muslim majority Malda and Murshidabad, besides North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur - are up for grabs in phase two of Lok Sabha polls in the state.
While four constituencies in the northern tip of Bengal had recorded a whopping 82.52 percent polling in the opening round April 17, an electorate of around 83 lakh is eligible to choose representatives from among 78 candidates in 9,755 polling stations two days from now. The women voters number over 40 lakhs.
In the 2009 general election, the Congress had bagged six seats in the state, and five of those constituencies - Raiganj, Malda North, Malda South, Jangipur and Murshidabad - would vote April 24.
The other seat - Balurghat - had gone to the left Front partner Revolutionary Socialist Party five years back.
However, the going is likely to be anything but smooth for the Congress, with the Trinamool increasing its sphere of influence over the past 35 months it has been in power, and a resurgent BJP seemingly poised to come up with a much better performance than in 2009.
In 2009, the Congress and the Trinamool had teamed up, but the alliance ended three years later when the Trinamool came out of the centre's ruling dispensation United Progressive Alliance.
With the Congress and the Trinamool now fighting separately, the LF is hoping to cash in on the division of votes between the erstwhile allies.
Absorbing and interesting contests are expected in several seats, with political heavyweights vying for honours besides cultural figures.
President Pranab Mukherjee's son Abhijit is on a sticky wicket at Murshidabad district's Jangipur, from where his father was elected in 2004 and 2009 before resigning following his election to the nation's highest office.
Lacking his father's stature and charisma, Abhijit Mukherjee, who barely managed to pip the CPI-M in the bypolls in 2012, appears to be on a sticky wicket yet again.
With nearly 63 percent of the voters being Muslims, the Jamaat-e-Islami backed Welfare Party of India (WPI) and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) are attempting a repeat of 2012 by cornering a chunk of the minority votes. The muslim factor has also prompted the Trinamool to move its MP from Basirhat Haji Nurul to Jangipur.
The BJP, which surprised political observers by getting over 10 percent of the votes in the by-polls, is also in the race.
Having nearly pulled off an upset two years back, CPI-M candidate Muzaffar Hussain is eyeing an even better showing this time.
Dinajpur's Raiganj is another star constituency, from where union minister and sitting MP Deepa Dasmunshi is in fray.
The constituency has been electing former union minister and veteran Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, now ailing at a Delhi hospital, and then his wife Deepa since 1999.
To corner Deepa - a fierce critic of Trianmool chief Mamata Banerjee - the ruling party has nominated Priya Ranjan's brother Satya Ranjan.
The CPI-M - which finished second to Deepa five years ago - has sent its articulate central committee member Mohammed Salim, the party's most prominent muslim face in the state, to fight the polls. The district incidentally has over 47 percent muslim population.
Famed Bengali actor Nimu Bhaumik is the BJP candidate.
Among other notable candidates in this phase are union minister Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury of the Congress from Malda South, and Trinamool nominees band singer Soumitra Roy (Malda North) and theatre personality Arpita Ghosh (Balurghat).
The four main rivals Trinamool, Left Front, Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are competing in all the seats. Among the LF partners, the CPI-M is in action in five and the RSP in one.
West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha constituencies. The next three phases of polling will be held April 30 (nine seats), May 7 (six seats) and May 12 (17 seats).