68% voting in phase-1 of Gujarat polls; Cong cries EVM

Sixty eight per cent polling was recorded on Saturday in the first phase of polls in 89 Assembly seats in Gujarat

Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers stand guard as women wait in a queue to cast their votes in Surendranagar district in the western state of Gujarat

Ahmedabad/New Delhi: Sixty eight per cent polling was recorded on Saturday in the first phase of polls in 89 Assembly seats in Gujarat where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress’ soon-to-be president Rahul Gandhi are locked in a bitter, high-stakes political battle after a 22-year BJP reign.

The final figure was likely to go up since people were still standing in queues outside polling centres after close of voting at 5 pm, Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha said in Delhi.

Even as the polling passed off peacefully, opposition leaders raised apprehensions about electronic voting machine (EVM) tampering, a charge rejected by the EC.

The BJP took pot-shots at the Congress saying that the party was looking for excuses.

Sixty eight per cent of the 2.1 crore voters exercised their franchise, Sinha said.

Responding to a series of questions on reports of EVM tampering, Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Jain said one complaint filed by a Congress candidate in Porbandar regarding his cell phone getting connected to an EVM through ‘bluetooth’ was found to be incorrect.

The complaint was lodged by senior Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia.

Jain said experts found that the cell phone was actually connected to the Bluetooth of a polling agent’s mobile.

The EVM has “no receptors” and cannot be connected to any other device except the control unit and the paper trail machine, he said, adding it has no Bluetooth or USB (pen drive in common parlance) port.

State Election Commission officials said there were reports of technical glitches in EVMs in Surat and some other centres, but the polling process resumed after the machines were replaced.

They said 977 candidates were in the fray in the 89 seats of Saurashtra and South Gujarat, of which 63 were won by the BJP and 22 by the Congress in the 2012 Assembly polls. A total turn out of 71.32 per cent was recorded in the last election to the 182-member Assembly.

Several important leaders, including Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, his opponent from Rajkot (West) seat Indranil Rajyaguru, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani were among the early voters. Cricketer Cheteshwar Pujara also cast his vote in Rajkot.

Prominent candidates in today’s battle included Rupani and Congress’ Shaktisinh Gohil (Mandvi) and Paresh Dhanani (Amreli).

As the polling process began at 8 am, people stepped out of their houses braving the winter chill and queued up to cast votes at the polling stations.

With the marriage season on, brides and grooms, clad in wedding finery, came to polling booths along with their relatives to exercise their franchise. Many such voters were seen in Bharuch, Bhavnagar, Gondal and Surat. A 115-year-old woman from Upleta town of Rajkot, Aajiben Chandravadia, also voted, reports said.

The election in Modi’s home state is crucial for the Congress and the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and is seen as a prestige battle for the prime minister, who was the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, and a litmus test for the opposition party’s heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi.

Emotive issues of religion and caste competed with that of development and the attacks by the two parties often turned personal as leaders indulged in name-calling.

The Congress, in political wilderness in Gujarat for nearly 22 years, is desperate to break the jinx. It has raised questions on BJP’s Gujarat “development model”, demonetisation and GST.

The BJP is banking on its performance and Modi’s popularity to counter any anti-incumbency or impact of the Patidar quota stir. Modi has attacked the Congress over the issue of dynastic politics and corruption and invoked “Gujarati pride’ in his campaign speeches.

While Modi addressed about 15 rallies, Gandhi spent more than seven days in Saurashtra and south Gujarat, addressing a number of meetings and emerging as the Congress pivot to take on the prime minister on his home turf.

EC officials said a total of 26,865 ballot units (on which votes are cast), 24,689 control units which are kept with the presiding officer and an equal number of paper trail machines were deployed.

Out of these, 181 ballot units (0.6 per cent of the total), 223 control units (0.55 per cent of the total) and 714 paper trail machines (1.75 per cent of the total) were replaced during polling, they said.

Over 6,000 ballot papers were electronically transferred to service voters, a major achievement considering that the practice of e-ballots was new, Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena said in Delhi.

The second phase of polling in 93 seats will be held on December 14 while the counting of votes is scheduled on December 18.

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