All eyes are on trouble-torn Nandigram of West Bengal as it holds a by-election to the state assembly Jan 5, with prolonged violence in 2007 and 2008 over land acquisition fresh on everyone's minds.
Nerves are so taut in the state administration that this by-poll and another have been deferred from the original date last Saturday because not enough central paramilitary forces to ensure peaceful polls arrived on time.
The Nandigram area of East Midnapore district has seen prolonged blood letting between the state's ruling Communists and the opposition over land acquisition for a proposed chemical engineering hub. The project has been aborted.
Now, politically, things have become more interesting because there seems to be an unstated understanding between the opposition parties Trinamool Congress and the Congress for this by-poll.
They are joining hands to take on the ruling Communists, a development that may have implications for the parliament polls that will possibly be held next April or May.
The by-poll rivals - the Trinamool Congress and the ruling Left Front led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) - are trying to cash in on the sentiments of the locals, who suffered heavily due to police firing and fiercely violent political clashes.
The Trinamool Congress has fielded Firoza Bibi, who lost her younger son Indadur in the March 14, 2007, police firing.
Ruling Left Front partner Communist Party of India (CPI), whose representative Sheikh Mohammed Illias won the seat in 2006, has named Paramananda Bharati, a veteran teacher of the area, as its candidate.
Illias resigned his seat following his alleged involvement in a bribery case. A sting operation by a news television channel had shown him apparently accepting a bribe of Rs.10,000 from a non-governmental organisation for development work in his area.
"People in Nandigram stood by us voting for the Trinamool Congress in the panchayat (rural local body) elections this year. In the coming assembly by-election, we're very hopeful of gaining this seat in view of the state-sponsored terrorism let loose by the CPI-M," Trinamool Congress-backed anti-land acquisition group Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) convenor Abu Taher told IANS.
On the other hand, CPI state secretary Manju Kumar Majumdar told IANS: "We're confident of winning in Nandigram as it's considered a Left bastion. If we don't face any violence, we'll surely win there."
Violence broke out in Nandigram early 2007 after local farmers, backed by the Trinamool Congress-led opposition parties, protested the state government's land acquisition bid for the proposed chemical hub project with Indonesia's Salim Group.
The Congress has stayed away from the Nandigram contest this time, and has lent tacit support to the Trinamool Congress. "As far as we are concerned, we are not fighting. And of course, our voters are not going to vote for CPI or any communal candidate. They'll vote for a nationalstic party," vice president of the Congress' state unit Manas Bhuniya told IANS.
Apparently returning the compliment, the Trinamool Congress has publicly announced its support for the Congress candidate at Malda district's Sujapur, the other constituency where a by-poll will be held Jan 5.
However, Trinmool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee's public stand has been that her party decided not to field candidate for the seat as a tribute to the late Congress leader A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, who was from Malda.
Banerjee had declared: "It's (the understanding) limited to the Sujapur seat only. It's a mark of respect to Ghani Khan Choudhury."
But the unstated quid pro quo has triggered much speculation about a probable tie-up between the two parties in the parliament elections next year.
The Sujapur seat fell vacant following the death of sitting legislator Rubi Noor, sister of former Ghani Khan Choudhury. The Congress has nominated her daughter Mousam Noor as its candidate in the by-poll.
"We've made extensive arrangements for the by-polls considering the violence in Nandigram," said West Bengal Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia.
The by-elections to three West Bengal seats - Nandigram, Sujapur and Para - were originally scheduled to take place Dec 27. Then, the Nandigram and Sujapur by-polls was deferred and rescheduled to Jan 5 as central paramilitary reinforcements did not arrive on time.
In Para, polling passed off peacefully Saturday. The seat in Purulia district was lying vacant since mid-2008, after sitting CPI-M legislator Bilasi Bala Sahish put in her papers on being elected zilla parishad sabhadhipati (district council chief).
The votes for all three by-polls will be counted January 9.