In one of the most incident-free elections witnessed in politically volatile West Bengal in recent years, 70% of electors cast their votes peacefully in the first phase of the assembly polls Monday, officials said.
There were long queues and polling was brisk in the 54 constituencies spread over the six northern districts - Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda - with over 97 lakh eligible voters.
"Around 70 percent polling has been reported till 5 pm, when the scheduled time got over. However, as many people were still waiting outside a few polling stations for their turn to vote, polling will continue there for some more time," said joint chief electoral Officer Dibyendu Sarkar.
Candidates had very few reasons to complain, as people lined up attired in their best to vote - from the hill station of Darjeeling in the state’s northern tip to Malda, famed for its mouthwatering mangoes.
Enthusiasm was high as first time voters and old-timers voted in strength to choose their representatives from among 364 candidates on the maiden leg of the six-phase staggered polling that would end May 10.
The ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Front faces the biggest ever challenge of its 34 years rule from the Trinamool Congress-Congress combine in the polls.
"Polling was completely peaceful. There were no untoward incidents," Inspector General of Police Ranbir Kumar told IANS.
However, there was a vote boycott in six polling booths of Malda district and two other booths in South Dinajpur district on local issues like lack of development, said joint chief electoral Officer Dibyendu Sarkar.
A presiding officer of a booth in South Dinajpur's Harirampur constituency was removed for violating the poll code, he said.
According to sources in the CEO's office, Jalpaiguri recorded 67% polling, Malda 68.42%, Cooch Behar 74.3%, and South Dinajpur 74.33%. Polling percentage in Darjeeling was 70% and North Dinajpur was around 67.03%.
Polling began at 7 am. In some places, people cast their vote in candlelight due to power cuts, and in a few polling booths electronic voting machines (EVMs) malfunctioned but were set right soon.
The fate of 11 ministers of the Left Front was decided during Monday's poll.
"There were complaints of electronic voting machines malfunctioning in two-three booths of some districts. The machines were replaced soon and the poll process is going smoothly. There were no reports of any violence or disturbances," said Sarkar.
"Paramilitary troopers were posted in all 12,131 polling booths, of which 1,800 have been identified as critical. The election officials in the CEO's office are directly monitoring the polling process in 150 out of 1,800 critical booths," said Sarkar.
Authorities deployed 548 companies of central paramilitary forces in the districts to face any eventuality, a police officer said.
The CPI-M is contesting 32 seats, the Communist Party of India (CPI) two, Forward Bloc 10, Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) nine, Socialist Party one, the Trinamool Congress 26, the Congress 27, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) one, and the Bharatiya Janata Party 49.
Also in the fray are the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in three constituencies, Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in three, and the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League in three.
Of the 54 constituencies, 16 are reserved for Scheduled Castes and eight for Scheduled Tribes.
Polling for West Bengal's 294 seats will be held in six phases. The next phases are April 23 (50 constituencies), April 27 (75), May 3 (63), May 7 (38) and May 10 (14). The votes will be counted May 13.