The populous Indian state of West Bengal has emerged as a key battleground for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, which is looking to extend its national domination and dislodge one of Modi's sharpest critics.
To win power in the eastern state, where a month-long election begins on Saturday, Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has deployed its formidable election machinery, backed by deep pockets.
The party brass – including Modi and his powerful home minister Amit Shah – has also been relentlessly campaigning, flanked by local leaders poached from the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which has ruled the state since 2011 and is headed by firebrand Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The BJP currently controls a dozen of the country's 28 states, with alliance partners in several others. But it has never won power in West Bengal, whose 90 million people make it the fourth most populous state.
"A victory in Bengal would mean that they are closer to their one-nation, one-party ambition," said political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.
Winning states is key to controlling the upper house of the federal parliament whose members are elected by state assemblies. The BJP already has a huge majority in the lower house of parliament and will be in a better position to enact legislation through parliament, analysts say.
Victory in West Bengal could also weaken political opposition against the government's recent moves, including a months-long farmers agitation over new farm laws, Mukhopadhyay said.
"It will be an endorsement of Modi's politics and policies through the pandemic," he said.
But the BJP faces a formidable opponent in Banerjee, the incumbent chief minister who has been campaigning from a wheel-chair after a recent accident.
"Do not look at individual candidates, cast your vote for me," Banerjee says in her public rallies. Her centrist party came to power when it ousted the Communists who had ruled the state for more than 30 years.
Close race expected
Opinion pollsters have predicted a close race, despite the BJP making rapid gains against the state's ruling party.
Dinesh Trivedi, a former TMC lawmaker who recently joined the BJP, said that there was wide support for Modi's promise to closely align the state with the federal government and its policies.
"There is faith in the prime minister," Trivedi said. "Whatever you are, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, you want a job."
A TMC lawmaker, Mahua Moitra, said that while the party had only a tenth of the BJP's resources it would rely on its track record and grassroots organisation to retain power.
"The development work on the ground for the last 10 years is undeniable," Moitra said.
At the BJP headquarters in the heart of West Bengal's capital Kolkata, groups of upbeat party members sat in huddles on Wednesday.
Alok Haldar, a BJP member, said low-level corruption during the TMC's long years in power had helped his party make inroads.
"Voters will teach them a lesson," he said.
Moitra, referring to allegations of graft made by critics against the TMC, said that there had been "great efforts" to clean up the party at the grassroots level.
"There is no doubt in my mind, at all, that we are coming back," she said.