Polling began in the Left turf of West Bengal for 14 of its 42 Lok Sabha seats amid tight security in the northern and Maoist-hit western regions on Thursday.
The polling centers opened at 7 am to enable 16 million voters to choose their nominees to the Lok Sabha from among 134 candidates in the first phase of the polls in a state ruled by the Left Front without a break for 32 years.
The three Maoist-hit districts of Bankura, Midnapore West and Purulia pose the biggest security challenge.
Authorities have requisitioned three Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters for constant air surveillance and shortened polling time by two hours in six pockets most affected by Maoist violence - Jhargram, Binpur and Bandwan in Midnapore West and Balarampur, Bagmundi and Jaipur in Purulia.
Tension soared Wednesday as Maoist posters asking people to boycott polls appeared in various parts of the state, including Kolkata, throwing the adminstration and police into a tizzy.
In Lalgarh block in the Jhargram constituency of Midnapore (West) district, agitating tribals blocked the movement of central security personnel. The securitymen could finally move out of the area, but not before furnishing bonds.
The polling officials in the Maoist belt were kept in clusters on Wednesday and moved to the booths early Thursday, ringed by security personnel.
Besides five seats in the three districts, nine constituencies in six north Bengal districts - Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur and Malda - are going to the hustings.
West Bengal has been sending the largest contingent of Left MPs over the years. Any dent in the Communist strength would affect their efforts to install a Third Front government and lead to an automatic increase in the share of seats of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), of which the Trinamool Congress is also now a part.
Among the prominent leaders in the fray is BJP nominee and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, contesting from troubled Darjeeling with support from the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM).
The GJM is hoping to realise its dreams of a new Gorkhaland state out of parts of northern Bengal with the help of the saffron party.
Besides Jaswant Singh, other high profile candidates in this phase include Deepa Dasmunsi, the wife of ailing Congress heavyweight Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi who is contesting from his constituency Raiganj against the Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M) Bireshwar Lahiri and a formidable independent Abdul Karim Chowdhury.
West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats. While 17 seats go to the polls May 7, the other 11 vote May 13.