India elections: Fourth phase marred by violence in eastern state

West Bengal state, crucial for Modi's hopes of retaining power, takes centre stage in the staggered general election.

    More than 127 million people were eligible to vote in the fourth of the seven-phase election [Atul Loke/Getty Images]
    More than 127 million people were eligible to vote in the fourth of the seven-phase election [Atul Loke/Getty Images]

    West Bengal state, crucial for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hopes of retaining power, took centre stage in India's staggered general election on Monday after clashes broke out between supporters of his party and a regional challenger.

    Security forces chased away people wielding sticks after workers from Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took on those from regional Trinamool Congress in the city of Asansol, police said.

    Monday's was the fourth round in the country's phased election, which reported a turnout of 64 percent for 71 parliamentary seats across nine states.

    The polls started on April 11 and the last phase is on May 19. Results are expected four days later.

    Crucial state

    Modi is hoping to gain seats in West Bengal, a populous state in eastern India, to offset likely losses in the north of the country.

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    An Election Commission of India official said paramilitary forces fired a blank round inside a polling station in another constituency in the state after a scuffle between voters and troops, who were demanding that mobile phones be kept aside while voting, as rules state.

    The BJP is in a direct, and sometimes bloody, fight in West Bengal with Trinamool, whose chief, Mamata Banerjee, is one of Modi's biggest critics and a possible candidate for prime minister.

    The BJP currently holds only two of West Bengal's 42 parliamentary seats.

    "We have asked for central forces at all polling booths so that free and fair elections can be held in the state," said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a minister in Modi's cabinet, referring to federal paramilitary police.

    Modi told a rally in West Bengal that at least 40 Trinamool state lawmakers were in touch with him and would leave the party after votes are counted on May 23.

    Trinamool accused Modi of attempting to horse-trade, telling him: "Nobody will go with you".

    The party also alleged that federal security forces were trying to influence voters to back the BJP wherever they were deployed.

    Maidul Islam, a professor of political science at Kolkata's Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, said the stakes were high for both parties, with Trinamool hoping to be part of a federal government coalition.

    There were no immediate reports of any poll-related injuries in West Bengal, where at least one person was killed and three injured during the third phase of voting last week.

    Main issues

    Many of the constituencies for Monday's elections were in Uttar Pradesh state in the north and western India's Maharashtra, where the financial capital Mumbai is located.

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    Uttar Pradesh elects the most MPs, with Maharashtra next, and both states are ruled by the BJP. Prime Minister Modi's coalition won more than 75 percent of the seats in the previous elections in 2014.

    However, political analysts say the BJP may struggle to repeat its strong showing this time due mainly to a jobs shortage and weak farm prices, issues upon which the main opposition Congress party has seized.

    "Jobs should be the priority for the new government," said Aaditya Nair, a hotel management student, as he stood in line outside a polling station in Mumbai.

     

    First-time voter Ankita Bhavke, a college student in Mumbai, said she voted for economic development.

    "I want the country to be at par with the best in the world," she said. "There's been some progress in the last five years." India's financial markets were closed on Monday for the election.

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    Mumbai, which has six seats, is India's wealthiest city but ageing and insufficient infrastructure is a major concern.

    It is also home to the massive Hindi film industry, Bollywood, as well as Asia's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and India's richest banker, Uday Kotak.

    India's financial markets were closed on Monday for the election.

    In disputed Jammu and Kashmir state's Anantnag constituency, which is voting in three phases due to security concerns, paramilitary forces fired tear gas and pellets to disperse youth throwing stones at them, a police officer said.

    Modi has played up his record on national security after he sent warplanes into Pakistan in late February in response to a suicide bomb attack by an armed group based there that killed 40 soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region. 

     

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency