Bengal vote count to decide fate of 1,961 candidates

Kolkata: The tension and suspense almost akin to a whodunnit novel that surrounds the West Bengal assembly polls will reach its climax on Thursday when the vote count is taken up to determine which party or combination will govern the eastern state for the next five years.

One of the most keenly observed political battles in the country, the polls in West Bengal have acquired an extra dimension this time, with arch-rivals the Congress and the CPI-M-spearheaded Left Front stitching an alliance to throw a strong challenge to the ruling Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee.

Exit polls have predicted that the Trinamool will retain power, with different agencies putting the majority figure ranging from a slender 155 to a huge 253 in the 294-member house.

However, the opposition has chosen to differ, arguing that the fear factor that prevails in the state -- known for its history of political violence -- makes it unlikely for voters to have spoken candidly about their preference to surveyors.

The fate of 1,961 candidates, including 198 women, now lies stored in 77,413 electronic voting machines, that would be opened one by one after counting commences across 90 centres at 8 a.m.

Around 82.80 percent of the total 6.55 crore electorate had exercised their franchise across 77,247 polling stations in the elections held over six phases on seven dates from April 4 to May 5.

A total of 294 counting observers have been deployed and 78 companies of central forces are on vigil to prevent any breach of peace.

A three-tier security has been put in place at the counting centres.

Besides the Left front Congress tie-up, that brought together Marxist veteran and former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi on the same stage, the polls also saw corruption emerge as a central issue.

While the Trinamool tom-tommed its infrastructural projects and welfare schemes, the opposition hit back with missiles like the Narada sting and Saradha scams and the flyover collapse in the city that claimed 26 lives.

Also of keen interest would be the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had polled a surprising 17 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The pollsters this time have predicted that the BJP's vote percentage would dip, with some saying it could even slump below five percent.

The extent of the erosion - if at all it happens - in the BJP vote bank might play a big role in determining the final outcome, with both the Trinamool and the Left-Congress claiming that they would benefit from the saffron party's loss.