MIDNAPORE/JHARGRAM/KANTHI: Polling began at 7 am on Saturday for the 30 seats in the first phase of the assembly elections in West Bengal amid tight security, officials said.
More than 73 lakh voters are eligible to exercise their franchise to decide the fate of 191 candidates in these seats, most of which are located in the once-Naxal-affected Jungle Mahal region.
The elections are being held following COVID-19 guidelines in all nine seats in Purulia, four in Bankura, four in Jhargram and six in Paschim Medinipur, besides the seven seats in high-stakes Purba Medinipur -- the home turf of BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari.
The elections, which will continue till 6 pm, are being held amid tight security with the Election Commission deploying around 730 companies of central forces, guarding 10,288 polling booths housed in 7,061 premises, officials said.
Each company of the central forces consists of 100 personnel, they said.
Besides, 22,092 state police personnel have also been deployed at strategic locations, they added.
Long queues were seen outside many booths even before polling began with people stepping out early to avoid the sweltering heat, besides the uncertainty of being able to cast their votes in case of violence later in the day.
Most of the voters and political party workers were seen without masks amid a resurgent coronavirus.
In some booths, the voters were provided masks, while santisers were made available at all the locations.
The Trinamool Congress is contesting 29 of the 30 seats, while supporting an Independent in the Joypur assembly segment in Purulia as the nomination of its official candidate Ujjwal Kumar was rejected by the EC due to a discrepancy.
The BJP is also contesting 29 seats and backing ally AJSU Party of Jharkhand in Baghmundi.
The Left-Congress-ISF alliance has put up candidates in all 30 seats, even as there are "friendly fights" in some.
Of these 30 seats, 27 were won by the TMC in the 2016 assembly elections, the Congress bagged two and RSP one.
However, the equations changed in 2019 with BJP making massive inroads in the tribal-dominated Jungle Mahal region, winning all five Lok Sabha constituencies -- Purulia, Bankura, Jhargram, Medinipur and Bishnupur.
West Bengal has been caught in the throes of violent political clashes between the TMC and BJP supporters which have claimed several lives on both sides over the last few days, prompting the Election Commission to deploy such a massive number of central forces.
Tension was palpable at Tulsidi village in Purulia's Bandwan as an election vehicle was set on fire hours before the polling began.
Forces are at present keeping a close vigil in the area, surrounded by forests that were once the hideouts of Maoists, officials said.
Total 73,80,942 voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in the first phase. Of them, 37,52,938 are male and 36,27,949 female, while there are 55 third gender voters.
West Bengal is voting in eight phases for 294 seats. The votes will be counted on May 2.