ATA (AFP) - The Indian state of West Bengal went to the polls Monday in a vote that looked set to end three decades of uninterrupted rule by the world's oldest democratically elected communist govt.
The Left Front, led by the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist), or CPI-M had, until recently, won every election in the eastern state since 1977.
But straight successive losses in council, parliamentary and municipal polls have left the communists struggling for survival. Opinion polls suggest the Left Front is headed for a crushing defeat at the hands of a woman who has emerged as one of India's most powerful and feisty politicians, Mamata Banerjee - known to her followers simply as "didi" or sister.
Banerjee, a populist who casts herself as a champion of the poor, has ridden a wave of popular discontent with the Communist government's handling of the economy that has left industry in decline and the state neck-deep in debt.
"The government's defeat is written on the wall," Banerjee, 56, told a recent campaign rally. "History is about to be made."
West Bengal is one of five states going to the polls in a round of regional elections that has caught India's ruling coalition, led by the Congress party, at a bad time.
A raft of corruption scandals and a surge in food price inflation have seriously undermined the political standing of the federal government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Congress is fighting the West Bengal poll in an alliance with Banerjee's Trinamool Congress which, with 19 seats in the federal parliament, is a key coalition partner.
One recent opinion poll forecast the Trinamool alliance would sweep the elections, winning 215 of the 294 state assembly seats while the communists would get just 74 - a result that would effectively consign the once-powerful Marxists to the margins of Indian politics.
Monday's voting marks the first of six phases in the election, with final results set to be announced on May 13.
State chief electoral officer Sunil Kumar Gupta said that more than 60,000 police and paramilitary forces had been deployed around the 12,000 polling booths.
Police reported minor clashes in the Cooch Behar district, which borders Bangladesh, where officers used batons to control an unruly crowd.
The anti-incumbency mood in West Bengal has been fuelled by anger among farmers over being forced to sell fertile land holdings under a government job-creation drive to lure industry.
The land acquisition policy "boomeranged on the government," said Abhirup Sarkar, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute. "You cannot force a person to sell off his land."
Three years ago violent protests led by Banerjee against plans by India's giant Tata group to build a factory in West Bengal to make the world's cheapest minicar, the Nano, led the company to shift the plant to western Gujarat state.
Protests also forced the abandonment of a $3 billion chemicals complex.
The drive to industrialise marked a shift from the communists' early days in power when they gave land to some 2.5 million rural poor under India's largest distribution scheme, breaking the hold of West Bengal's land-owning elite.
But as land shortages grew with farms being divided among families and unemployment climbed, the government shifted gear and sought to bring back factories to the state, which was once the nation's economic hub.
The diminutive Banerjee, whose mercurial nature and hot temper frequently land her in newspaper headlines, has promised to focus both on reviving industry and agriculture.
Since 2009, Banerjee has served as minister of railways, but critics note its finances are in a mess.
Voting on Monday takes place in six northern districts of West Bengal, including the tea-growing area of Darjeeling.
Trinamool is traditionally weak in these areas, which have snubbed Banerjee in previous elections.
"Bless me once, I promise to turn north Bengal into Switzerland. I promise you won't have to leave your home for jobs in other states," she said during campaigning, according to the The Indian Express newspaper.