State elections begin, 55-60 percent voting in Chhattisgarh (Roundup)November 14th, 2008 - 9:08 pm ICT by IANS
Raipur, Nov 14 (IANS) India’s crucial state elections began Friday with tens of thousands of people defying Maoist threats to vote in the first phase of polling in Chhattisgarh amid widespread violence blamed on the rebels.Though only four policemen were injured, in two separate places when the Maoists exploded landmines, the government got a taste of the reach of the guerrillas who had ordered people to boycott the elections.
The Election Commission said up to 60 percent of the 6.4 million people eligible to vote Friday exercised their franchise to choose mainly between the two top contenders: the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.
Friday’s polling marked the start of staggered assembly elections that will see millions voting to pick new governments in Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.
The outcome of the ballot is bound to cast a shadow on the Lok Sabha elections due early next year.
Officials in Raipur said that after a slow start, voting picked up rapidly in many of the 39 constituencies that went to the polls. Chhattisgarh’s assembly has 90 seats, and the rest of the constituencies will see polling Nov 20.
Even in Bastar region, a Maoist stronghold, there was a sudden surge in voting in the last one hour.
Polling began in Maoist bastions at 7 a.m. — one hour ahead of the rest of the state — amid uncertainty and heavy security deployment.
The outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist sought to prove its presence with periodic landmine explosions. Maoist cadres also raided outlying polling centres and looted electronic voting machines, besides setting up road blockades at over 50 places.
Election officials were abducted at one place but later released.
The election administration was on tenterhooks most of the day. At many places, officials were airlifted to polling stations after the Maoists cut huge trees and threw them on roads, blocking them.
The polling was disrupted in as many as 21 voting booths. Election officials, however, said that in view of the insurgency in Bastar region, the balloting could be considered “good”.
The polling percentage in Bastar region’s five districts ranged from 30 to 40 while Bastar district itself recorded 55 percent, followed by Tanker with 45.
Outside the Bastar region, there was heavy turnout of voters in Rajanandgaon and Durg districts where even women exercised their franchise in large numbers.
Some polling booths in Rajanandgaon, where BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh is contesting, saw long queues of voters even before the polling began.
Hours before the polling day dawned, Maoist guerrillas slit the throat of Trinath Thakur, a Congress leader in Dantewada block. The man bled to death.
BJP and Congress workers also clashed in one place.
According to officials, BJP supporters set fire to a Congress vehicle in Dhamtari constituency. The incident triggered tension in Sihawa, Kurud and Dhamtari constituencies.
Soon after voting started, gun battles erupted between policemen and Maoists in about 15 places in Sukma, Kistaram, Konta, Bhairamgarh, Antagarh, Pakhanjoor, Bijarpur and Dantewada constituencies.
Three policemen were injured by a land mine triggered by the rebels at Injeram in Konta constituency, close to the Andhra Pradesh border.
The BJP meanwhile demanded the arrest of Congress leader and former chief minister Ajit Jogi for his announcement that he would stay put in Bastar region for the entire day.
Jogi had said he would remain there because, according to him, the BJP had planned mass rigging.
A total of 379 candidates, including 36 women, were in the fray Friday.