In the backdrop of the Saradha chit fund scam overshadowing all other campaign issues, the Lok Sabha poll caravan moves deeper into Bengal Wednesday, involving nine seats covering four districts, including several industrial belts and the rural hamlet of Singur.
More than 1.39 crore voters across 17,332 polling stations would decide the fate of 87 candidates in the fray, of whom 17 are multi-millionaires and 13 have declared criminal cases in their affidavits including murder and crimes against women. There are over 66 lakh women voters.
With 10 of the total 42 constituencies in the eastern state already going to the hustings in the first two phases, the third round would see elections in Birbhum, Burdwan, Hooghly and Howrah districts, where the state's ruling Trinamool Congress has seemingly entrenched its bases, going by the results of last year's Panchayat and municipal polls. Trinamool, aspiring to play the kingmaker's role after the polls, had bagged five of the nine seats - Uluberia, Howrah, Sreerampur, Hooghly, and Birbhum in 2009. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front, which now finds itself locked in a battle of existence, claimed the remaining four seats of Bolpur, Arambagh, Bardhaman Purba and Bardhaman-Durgapur.
The Trinamool, CPI-M, Congress and the BJP are contesting all the seats.
Riding on what it calls a "wave" surrounding its prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi, the BJP is hoping to make a mark in these constituencies, having fielded celebrity and high-profile candidates like Bollywood music composer Bappi Lahiri (Sreerampur), famed Bengali actor George Baker (Howrah) and journalist-turned-BJP spokesperson Chandan Mitra (Hooghly).
Addressing a rally in Sreerampur in support of party candidates from the region and adjoining areas, Modi Sunday launched a no holds barred attack on the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool regime on a number of issues including the multi-crore Saradha scandal, which other opposition parties are also using to the hilt to hit out at the ruling party.
In Sreerampur, sitting MP Trinamool's Kalyan Banerjee, who has often faced criticism for his acerbic tongue, takes on Congress' seasoned campaigner Abdul Mannan and CPI-M's Tirthankar Roy, besides Lahiri. The Hooghly constituency, where Trinamool's incumbent parliamentarian Ratna De Nag is seeking re-election, includes Singur - synonymous to Trinamool's save farmland movement which catapulted it to power by ending the Left's 34 years of uninterrupted rule - which still hogs the limelight.
There is resentment among some sections of the farmers, with the Trinamool yet to keep its pledge of returning land to those from whom it was forcibly acquired by the erstwhile Left for the now abandoned Tata Motor's car manufacturing unit. The Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool government had passed a law to return land, but the matter has been pending in court. Banerjee has given sops to the affected farmers in the form of rice at Rs.2 a kg and a monthly dole, but the opposition parties have been harping on the "failed promise" of the government.
Mitra is selling the dream of getting an IT park built at the desolate project site.
All eyes will also on the twin seats of Birbhum and Bolpur where the Election Commission has given a major focus following complaints by the opposition parties of Trinamool high handedness in the region led by its controversial district chief Anubrata Mondal.
Pitted against CPI-M's Qamre Elahi and BJP's actor candidate Joy Banerjee, who has been drawing crowds, the task is cut out for incumbent Trinamool MP from Birbhum Satabdi Roy who is also battling factionalism within her own party.
Incidentally, Roy is now under the EC's scanner for giving "objectionable assurances" to the voters. Video footage showed Roy telling voters in a meeting that areas where she corners more votes would get priority in development work. The Howrah seat, which former India soccer skipper Prasun Banerjee bagged in a by-election following the death of party MP Ambica Banerjee, will also see a multi cornered fight with as many as 15 candidates in the fray, including Aam Aadmi Party's Suraj Narayan Singh and CPI-M's Sridip Bhattacharya who unsuccessfully contested the 2013 bypoll.
One of the prominent Muslim face of Trinamool, Sultan Ahmed, is recontesting from Uluberia which has 13 candidates vying for honours, including CPI-M's Sabiruddin Molla and Asit Mitra of the Congress.
The final two phases of polling in the state will be held May 7 (six seats) and May 12 (17 constituencies).