Millions vote in Himachal’s Congress-BJP battle

By Baldev S. Chauhan, IANS

Shimla : Nearly three million people voted in Himachal Pradesh in the second and final phase of assembly polls to pick 65 legislators Wednesday in a keen contest between the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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Election officials said up to 67 percent of the 4.4 million voters exercised their franchise in this round in 5,934 polling centres, including one set up for leprosy patients – the first time in India.

They were to pick from among 324 candidates. Along with the first phase of the polling for the three tribal seats of Bharmaur, Lahaul and Spiti, and Kinnaur Nov 14, the state assembly has 68 seats.

Himachal’s voters have traditionally always rejected the ruling party, but the Congress claims this time it will be different. The BJP is, however, confident of victory.

After a slow start on a cold and breezy morning, voting picked up around noon.The votes will be counted Dec 28 – five days after the Gujarat result is known.

Tourists, particularly foreigners, were seen moving curiously around polling booths in downtown Shimla. The area was colourfully decorated with banners and posters of contesting candidates.

People standing in long queues at many places seemed to enjoy the long wait because they were basking in the sun after a day of heavy clouds threatened to disrupt polling.

A honeymooning couple got themselves photographed in front of a polling booth on Shimla’s Mall Road.

“This booth is the most colourfully decorated polling booth we have ever seen,” said the woman.

In a population of 6.3 million, the main battle in the hill state is between the Congress and the BJP although the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is also – like these two – contesting all the seats for the first time.

The notable heavyweights in Wednesday’s contest were Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh (Congress, from Rohru) and BJP chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal (Bamsan).

While the Congress is highlighting the development work it has carried out in the last five years, the BJP is attacking the ruling party on issues like price rise, corruption and growing unemployment.

After casting his vote at Bamsan in Hamirpur, 160 km from here, Dhumal told reporters: “The BJP is heading for a landslide victory. It will win over 45 out of the total 68 seats.”

Virbhadra Singh and his wife Prathibha Singh, an MP, voted in Rampur.

Minister for State for External Affairs Anand Sharma was prevented from voting in the morning at Shimla as he did not have a voter identity card or any other document to prove his identity.

Half an hour later Sharma did procure an identity card from his house and was allowed to vote.

The voting was peaceful. There was a solitary incident of violence in Kangra’s Sulah seat when some people roughed up BJP candidate Vipin Parmar, leaving him bruised and his clothes torn.

Over 40,000 government officials and security forces were deputed to carry out the electoral exercise.

In 2003, 74.5 percent of the electorate voted. The Congress won 43 seats and the BJP 16. Independents and others got nine seats.