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KOLKATA (Reuters) - Voters streamed into polling stations in West Bengal on Monday in state elections that could see populist maverick Mamata Banerjee unseat the world’s longest-serving, democratically-elected communist government and emerge as a key power broker.
After 34 years of communist rule, Railway Minister Banerjee, a firebrand orator known as "Didi" or "elder sister", looks set to overthrow the communists blamed for leaving West Bengal and Kolkata in a time-warp of Soviet era state control.
"I promise to turn north Bengal into Switzerland" she told supporters with characteristic populist rhetoric at the weekend, referring to a plan to transform the area's railway network.
Monday's election is centred on the remote northern part of West Bengal.
Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) is allied to the ruling Congress party and her victory would give the UPA a moral boost at a time when it has been battered by high food inflation and graft scandals.
The 56-year-old's victory would also seal her position as one of India's most powerful regional politicians with the ability to influence Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, which is dependent on TMC’s 9 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha.
Banerjee would join a group of often fickle chief ministers -- including controversial "untouchables" leader Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh -- that often demand a myriad of concessions like extra infrastructure and social spending as a condition for support.
While her victory would strengthen Singh's coalition, it would also make it more vulnerable to pressure from his populist partner.
"Her attentions will be focused on West Bengal, as it is in a state of economic decline," said Ramachandra Guha, a fellow at the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata. "But she'll certainly have an eye on the centre, and she'll want to make sure she can still extract concessions for her state."
Results for the month-long staggered election will be known on May 13.
Singh's ability to revive stalled economic reforms even after victory is seen as limited because the coalition remains pre-occupied with fighting off an opposition onslaught on the graft charges.
Congress has 207 seats and depends on regional allies like Trinamool to reach the 272 halfway mark in Lok Sabha.
Banerjee with her trademark white sari and bathroom slippers and known for her spartan life-style, has won support with firebrand speeches and aggressive leadership against the communists that saw her once severely beaten up by communist mob.
She shares her home in Kolkata with her mother in a poor neighbourhood close to a crematorium.
She is widely seen as honest in contrast to perceptions that most politicians are corrupt.
Her statement on Switzerland was the kind of rhetoric that her critics say highlights her lack of real policy beyond criticising the communists. She is also seen as a fickle government ally, often refusing to attend cabinet meetings to protest the government on fuel price hikes and high food prices.
She is also criticised for what many see as an autocratic style and discouraging development of new leaders in her party.
As dawn broke on Monday, scores of voters formed queues outside one unopened booth, excitedly showing their identity cards to security personnel in Siliguri, some 600 km (370-mile) north of Kolkata.
"There are no predictable results in India's politics, but if there were, then this would be the most predictable of them all," The Indian Express said in an editorial on Monday.
Once one of the richest cities in Asia and the capital of the British empire in India, Kolkata has become a byword for poverty that has stumbled behind the new modern India of IT cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.
West Bengal has reflected wider issues in India. Banerjee 's popularity soared after overcoming communist plans to develop a Tata car plant on farmland - a battle reflecting a wider conflict between farmers and industry that cost at least 14 lives in the state.
Her party has also benefited from millions of disaffected urban voters who feel the communists have largely benefited farmers at the expense of city dwellers increasingly demanding new jobs and better services.
The communists though won praise for raising the living standards of poor farmers, their vote base, when they came to power in 1977. They have a strong grassroots organisation which could upset predictions of a sweeping victory by Banerjee.
Banerjee is criticised for standing more against the communists than standing for anything. She calls for industrialisation and infrastructure in West Bengal but litters her speech with rhetoric.
As railway minister, Banerjee refused to raise passenger fares despite criticism that the network's finances were shaky. Banerjee has also been criticised for flagging off new passenger trains even though such crowd-pleasing measures strain the railways' finances and derail freight growth.
"She has promised so much to so many that following through on any of it will be problematic," the Indian Express said.
Added reporting by Henry Foy and Matthias Williams; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani