Clashes leave Kolkata on edge ahead of election climax

Kolkata: Clashes between followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and an opposition leader heightened tensions in the key city of Kolkata on Wednesday ahead of the final round of the country’s hard-fought national election.
Fifty-nine people were arrested in street battles late Tuesday that forced Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to leave an election rally in the eastern metropolis under armed guard, police in West Bengal state said.
A statue of renowned Bengal reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, was destroyed and a college named after him ransacked in the troubles, which the BJP and rival Trinamool Congress (TMC) angrily blamed on each other.
The state has been hit by repeated violence between the two parties during the six-week-long election that ends Sunday. Results will be announced on May 23.
Modi’s BJP hopes to capture many of the state’s 42 parliament seats from the TMC to compensate for losses predicted in other regions.
The BJP accused West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of orchestrating attacks on Shah’s roadshow.
“Has Bengal acquired a government of gangsters? The attack on Amit Shah’s peaceful rally by TMC is deplorable,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said on Twitter.
Banerjee, who called a protest rally for Wednesday, hit back by accusing Shah acting like a “god” who does not allow protests. Trouble erupted when Shah’s convoy drove past the entrance to Calcutta University, where TMC student wing activists had gathered.
“It became worse when TMC supporters started throwing stones at the tail-end of the rally. A group of people then set two motorbikes and a bicycle on fire,” said witness Partha Sinha.
The BJP held a silent protest in Delhi against the violence in West Bengal. The TMC and its allies held rival protests in Kolkata.
Political observers say the aggressive campaign by Modi’s party against the TMC in the eastern state has made it one of the most bitter contests in the election.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission on Wednesday ordered that campaigning for the final round of the Lok Sabha polls on Sunday will halt in West Bengal at 10 pm on Thursday.
The campaigning would have originally ended at 5 pm. on Friday —as it would do in the rest of the country which will see voting on Sunday.
— AFP/IANS