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Modi aims to expand BJP empire as India’s West Bengal state holds elections

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces off Saturday against one of his most formidable opponents as West Bengal, a state with a bloody history of political violence, goes to the polls.

Victory in the eastern region of 90 million would be a huge achievement for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party as it seeks to expand its power base beyond its Hindi-speaking northern heartlands.

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Because of the need for extra security -- thousands have died in political violence in West Bengal since the 1960s -- the election is being held over eight phases concluding on April 29.

The campaign has seen huge rallies despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in India in recent weeks, including around 800,000 people attending one Modi event in Kolkata.

The north-eastern state of Assam also goes to the polls on Saturday in the first of three phases, while Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry vote on April 6. Results from all are due on May 2.

Election workers carry bags of election material at a distribution centre ahead of the first phase of West Bengal state assembly election, in Purulia district, India. (Reuters)
Election workers carry bags of election material at a distribution centre ahead of the first phase of West Bengal state assembly election, in Purulia district, India. (Reuters)

The election in West Bengal is the most important with the Hindu nationalist BJP pushing hard to win power in the Bengali-speaking region for the first time.

But the party faces a tough opponent in incumbent chief minister Mamata Banerjee, 66, a firebrand whose Trinamool Congress party ended three decades of rule in 2011.

The campaign has been marked by violence with the BJP claiming that more than 100 of its workers have been killed over the last two years, with the Trinamool making similar claims.

Activists from both parties have been shot or hacked to death, their bodies sometimes hung from trees.

Crude bombs, available on the black market for as little as 100 rupees ($1.40), have also been used to kill, maim or intimidate voters.

The mutilated body of one BJP activist, Sukhdev Pramanik, was found face-down in a pond in the village of Chandpara in December.

Sumita, the mother of Shoubhik Dolai, a Trinamool activist killed last month, told AFP that “they pumped bullets into him... I got to know when I saw the news on TV.”

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