Preceded by weeks of violence, intense court battles and alleged use of muscle power to prevent opponents from filing nominations, the West Bengal panchayat polls are all set to be held on Monday, which will give a clearer picture of the battle lines ahead of the 2019 general elections.
While the ruling Trinamool Congress has been doing consistently well in polls at all levels for the last few years, the main suspense has in recent past centred around which political force — the BJP or the Left Front — would be its main challenger.
While the LF-Congress alliance finished second in the 2016 Assembly elections, since then, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been ending runners-up in almost all elections in the state.
Pre-poll surveys have predicted that the coming rural elections could provide an emphatic answer to the questions, with the BJP predicted to leave the LF and the Congress far behind and emerge as the main rival to the Trinamool – which, the surveys claims, would walk away with the bulk of the seats at all three levels — panchayat, panchayat samiti and the zila parishad.
The run-up to the polls has been both murky and high on drama.
As the nomination process started last month, all the opposition parties accused the Trinamool of indulging in strongarm tactics to prevent them from filing nominations.
Television pictures broadcast across the channels showed groups of armed mobs gathering before the offices of the Block Development Officers and the Sub-Divisional Officers in a number of districts and stopping prospective candidates from entering the poll fray.
The matter reached the Calcutta High Court, and the State Election Commission extended the deadline for submitting nominations by a day, only to reverse the order in less than 12 hours, allegedly under pressure from the Trinamool.
The judiciary then put a stay on the elections, then scheduled to be held on May 1, 3 and 5.
More bitter legal battles followed, at the end of which the SEC declared May 14 as the new polling date.
Statistics reveal that of the total 58,692 seats in the three tiers of rural local bodies, 20,076 seats or 34.2 per cent have already been decided uncontested, with the Trinamool bagging a whopping proportion of these seats.
These seats include 16,814 of the total 48,650 panchayats, 3,059 of the total 9,217 panchayat samitis and 203 of the total 825 zila parishads.
The Supreme Court has now asked the SEC not to issue winning certificates in case of the uncontested seats.
The opposition parties have, however, expressed grave doubts of free and fair elections, saying they have little faith in the SEC, or the state administration, which is in charge of security.
The SEC has, on the other hand, said all arrangements had been made for providing security for the polls. Around 71,500 armed personnel would be on duty, manning every booth.
“The state has promised deployment of Rapid Action Force, and undertaking area domination and naka checking in their final draft. The SEC is satisfied with the arrangement,” said an election official.
Armed forces have also arrived from Assam, Odisha, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh to strengthen security arrangements.
However, there have been reports of a number of killings since the polling process began. The latest incident happened on Friday in Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district, where a supporter of an independent candidate was shot dead. A former Trinamool legislator Arabul Islam has been arrested in connection with the incident.