♦ BJP seen bagging 8 of 42 seats in Bengal, up from 2: survey
♦ Hindu groups accuse regional leader of appeasing Muslims
At an election rally in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, a local leader from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) described how workers from the state's ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) had disrupted a public meeting in January by destroying their vehicles.
"So, we thrashed them in retaliation, smashed their vehicles and burnt their party office," Arup Das, a district secretary of the Hindu nationalist BJP, roared at the rally in the town of Kharagpur.
"Stand up and protest," Das said to the crowd. "Trinamool Congress will run away in fear."
Political differences have been erupting into tension and sometimes violence across India ahead of the general election in April-May, but it's particularly bad in West Bengal. Both the BJP and the TMC are accusing each other of killings, beatings, vandalism and making false allegations to the police.
After losing three state elections late last year, and with weak farm incomes and slow jobs growth undermining his backing in the BJP's traditional Hindu base in the north, Modi is driving hard to pick up support in West Bengal.
The push has set him and the BJP on a collision course with firebrand politician Mamata Banerjee, the TMC leader and the state's chief minister.
For Banerjee, popularly called 'Didi' or elder sister, defeating the BJP's challenge is vital to cement her power base and bolster her image as a possible future prime minister if opposition parties win enough seats to form a coalition government.
"BJP is rising in West Bengal," said Udayan Bandyopadhyay, head of the political science department at Bangabasi College in Kolkata.
There is a sense of anti-incumbency that is working against Banerjee, who has won the previous two state assembly elections, Bandyopadhyay said. BJP did well at village council polls last year and a recent survey showed the party winning eight out of the 42 parliamentary seats in Bengal, up from two currently.
The BJP has been holding a series of mega rallies in West Bengal targeting specially on Mamata Banerjee's authoritarian-style rule, headlined by top BJP leaders, including Modi himself. Still, it will be an uphill task to defeat 64-year-old Banerjee, an aggressive and strong-headed politician with grassroots appeal.
Hindu groups linked to the BJP also accuse her of appeasing Muslim voters, who make up about one third of the electorate, by providing separate schools, hospitals and training institutes for the community and handing out stipends.