efe-epaBy Shubhomoy Chatterjee. Kolkata, India

A reported clash between a candidate for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and members of the Trinamool Congress earlier this week is just one of many such incidents that have been dominating discussions among residents and voters in Kolkata, the capital of the eastern state of West Bengal, amid ongoing elections in India.

On Monday, BJP candidate from Barrackpore, a city in the Kolkata metropolitan area, said he had been attacked and beaten up by members of the TMC, which has recently enjoyed strong support in West Bengal.

The incident was just the one instance of the often fatal election violence that has followed Bengali voters like a shadow for decades, a scourge that the formerly Left Front-ruled state has struggled to shake off.

“From experience, I can say that the journey from one's home to the polling booth, which may be just a kilometer or two away, is a very long one. Unlike in polling booths, there is no security cover or police protection," Niranjan Bhuiya, a social worker, told EFE.

Although the Election Commission (EC) has staggered the polls over seven phases and provided strong security in the politically volatile state, reports of killings, clashes and criminal intimidation continue unabated.

Voters are intimidated by hired goons, who may be unaware of the damage caused by stopping people from exercising their democratic rights, Bhuiya says. “This is a very big problem.”

Bhuiya alleges that election officials are seldom neutral and collude with local parties out of political affinity or fear, resulting in so-called “booth capturing” (a form of electoral fraud associated with India) and bogus voting.

Even though the EC had stepped up security measures for all the polling stations for the last three rounds of elections, violence was still reported during the fifth phase on May 6.

"We have doubts about how much power the security forces actually exercise when dealing with certain situations. Sometimes they have been ineffective," Bhuiya said, adding that many incidents in more remote areas go unreported.

There have been many violent incidents reported in both local and national media outlets during these elections, which began on Apr. 11.

In one instance, one person was killed and at least 12 were injured in clashes between supporters of the two rival groups on Apr. 23.

In addition to the violence claimed by BJP candidate Arjun Singh on May 6, a TMC activist told EFE this week that some BJP candidates had fired shots at three different polling stations to intimidate voters.

West Bengal has traditionally been a bastion of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), which was in power in the state for 34 years before being ousted in 2011 by Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee-led TMC.

The vacuum created due to the defeat of the CPI (M) allowed the nationalist BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi - who is seeking a second term in office - to progressively spread its wings in the Bengali heartland, which elects 42 of 543 legislators to the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament).

"Given the importance this election holds for the BJP, they want to get a strong foothold in Bengal. The violence is a result of clashes between the TMC and the BJP ," Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a retired political science professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told EFE.

The BJP and TMC, meanwhile, continue to blame each other for the unrest.

“Whatever incidents or problems in Bengal are being created by the BJP”, Bengal TMC legislator Partha Bhowmick told EFE. “They are doing such things everywhere: giving provocative speeches, using unparliamentary language, inciting people - BJP leaders are doing all of it”.

But the BJP has accused the TMC of “eroding democracy in the state” by preventing other parties from operating in West Bengal, using state mechanisms to intimidate the people and even “getting policemen beaten up inside police stations” if they refuse to toe the line.

“There are a lot of cases of criminal intimidation during polling”, BJP National Secretary Rahul Sinha told EFE. “Beating up members from rival parties, destroying campaign materials, intimidating voters and opposition party supporters. But the police are hand-in-glove with them and are not taking any action”.

The culture of political violence predates the TMC-BJP conflict by decades and can be traced back to the 1970s when the CPI(M) was known to have used violence to tilt elections in its favor and later consolidate its position, which helped them rule the state for over three decades.

Despite a change in government in 2011, political violence continues to be used tactically.

"The politicians and candidates are the same, only their party symbol (allegiance) has changed with the government," Aslam Ansari, a 34-year-old teacher, told EFE.

The political unrest has led to an exodus of big industries from Bengal; they have yet to return to the state, causing joblessness among a significant portion of the youth.

The crippling effect of the political turmoil over the years has led to a general sense of hopelessness, something also evident among the people debating the elections in an upscale area of Kolkata.

One of them, a septuagenarian who has lived through decades of political unrest in the state, said it was regular voters who were the victims of the violence.

“The hand that fires a gun or throws a grenade rarely suffers its impact. It is always the common people who have suffered in the past and are suffering now," he said.

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