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In a last-gasp attack on the opposition BJP, Chief Minister Banerjee on Sunday evening tore into the centre over its handling of the Covid pandemic, paying particular attention to the crippling oxygen shortage and row over vaccine prices. She also urged people, even those who are Covid-positive, and for whom the Election Commission has made arrangements, to cast their vote.
Shortly after polling began this morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged voters to follow all Covid protocols. "The seventh phase of the West Bengal elections takes place today. Urging people to exercise their franchise and follow all COVID-19 related protocols," PM Modi tweeted.
Campaigning for the seventh phase has been a low-key affair, following curbs imposed by the poll body in the wake of increasing Covid cases in the state. These included banning roadshows and rallies, limiting daily campaigning hours and extending the 'silence period' from 48 to 72 hours.
On Sunday evening Bengal reported 15,889 new cases in 24 hours - a record high for daily new cases and up from 14,281 a day before. The state also reported 57 Covid-linked deaths in 24 hours - a marginal drop from the 59 reported Saturday. The poll body has also turned down requests to club the remaining phases of the polls; the BJP had argued this would infringe on the "democratic rights of the candidates".
Also on Sunday Trinamool nominee from Khardaha, Kajal Sinha, died of Covid. He is the third candidate to die after contracting the virus, following the deaths of RSP's Pradip Kumar Nandi (Jangipur) and the Congress's Rezaul Haque (Samserganj). Samserganj and Jangipur also had to vote in the seventh phase but polling was later deferred. The BJP's Babul Supriyo, contesting from Tollygunge, has tested positive for a second time.
Trinamool leader Sovondeb Chattopadhyay, Bengal's Power Minister, will contest from Bhabanipur - Chief Minister Banerjee's current seat and the Trinamool's since 2011 - after she opted to stand from Nandigram to take on Suvendu Adhikari. Mr Chattopadhyay will face the BJP's Rudranil Ghosh, the actor and former Trinamool member who quit the party a few months ago.
Urban Development Minister and Kolkata Mayor Firhad Hakim is seeking a third consecutive term from Kolkata Port. He faces a potentially tough three-way fight against the BJP's Awadh Kishore Gupta and the Congress' Mohammed Mukhtar in a seat where minority votes could be key. Rural Development Minister Subrata Mukherjee and actor Saayoni Ghosh are other big Trinamool names on the ballot today.
Over 81 lakh people will be eligible to vote as 36 constituencies decide on their political representatives. The ruling Trinamool will contest all available seats in this phase, as will its primary opposition - the BJP. The Congress-Left alliance has agreed a 19:13 split, with the Rashtiye Secular Majlis Party (RSMP) fielding candidates from the other four segments.
In 2016 the Trinamool won 14 seat and 36.8 per cent of the votes. The Congress 12 seats and 22.4 per cent of the votes, and the Left claimed 10 seats and 21.6 per cent of the votes. The BJP secured just 13.1 per cent of the votes and zero seats. Three years later - in the Lok Sabha election - the BJP tied the Trinamool for the lead in 16 Assembly segments and took 37 per cent of the votes, compared to the ruling party's 38.9 per cent.
The eighth and final round of polling will be held on Thursday, with the results of this and four other Assembly elections - for Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry - to be declared Sunday, May 2.