The high-stakes Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll recorded a 56 per cent voter turnout on Wednesday, lower than 70.03 per cent recorded in the 2014 general elections. Voting at 1,781 polling stations passed off peacefully, officials said. The bypoll is being seen as a barometer for the popularity of the six-month-old Congress government in Punjab.
The seat, which had fallen vacant following the demise of actor-turned-politician Vinod Khanna of the BJP in April, is witnessing a three-horse race between the Congress, the BJP and the AAP. While the Congress has fielded its Punjab unit chief Sunil Jakhar, the BJP has put up businessman Swaran Salaria. The AAP has placed a bet on Major General (retd) Suresh Khajuria.
“The total voting percentage was 56 per cent. Polling was peaceful,” Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Punjab V K Singh said. As many as 15.22 lakh voters were eligible to exercise their franchise in the by-election fought by 11 candidates. Of the total electorate of 15,22,922 in the constituency, 7,12,077 are women and 14 belong to a third gender, the official said.
Out of the nine assembly segments falling under it, the Dera Baba Nanak Vidhan Sabha constituency registered maximum 65 per cent voting. The Batala Vidhan Sabha constituency recorded the lowest at 50 per cent, he said. Sujanpur recorded 54 per cent, Bhoa 60 per cent, Pathankot, Gurdaspur and Dinanagar 54 per cent each, Qadian 57 per cent and Fatehgarh Churian 63 per cent, Singh said.
The polling percentage in the assembly segments was lower than that recorded in the 2017 assembly elections. Voting was scheduled to start at 8 am, but glitches in voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines led to delay at 19 polling stations, the CEO said. He said around 80 VVPAT were replaced before the start of polling as they had developed snag. Voting started on a slow note and just 23.44 per cent voters exercised their franchise till 12 noon.
A minor clash was reported between Shiromani Akali Dal and Congress workers in Pahra village. Five Akali workers, including a former village head, was injured in the incident. “Congressmen thrashed our workers in Pahra village,” SAD spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema alleged.
AAP candidate Major General (retd) Suresh Khajuria filed a complaint with the Election Commission (EC) alleging that a polling agent of the Congress tried to influence voters at a booth in Pangoli village in Sujanpur. Singh said EVMs were kept in Gurdaspur and Pathankot where counting of votes would take place on October 15. “Tight security arrangements have been made where the EVMs have been kept,” he said.
Around 30 companies of paramilitary forces and more than 7,000 Punjab police personnel were deployed in the constituency. A total of 1,781 polling stations were set up at 1,257 locations, of which 457 were declared as vulnerable and 83 as critical. Voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) was used at all the polling stations.
The bypoll will gauge the popularity of the Amarinder Singh government which is battling allegations of reneging on its pre-assembly polls promise of farm debt waiver and free smartphones. The Congress, which had bagged 77 seats in the 117-member Punjab Assembly in February, is keen to keep the winning momentum going.
The BJP has also tried pulling out all the stops to retain the seat, which Khanna had won four times. A victory would give much-needed boost to the BJP, which had bagged just one segment of Sujanpur out of the four seats it had contested in the assembly polls. The AAP, the main opposition party in Punjab with 20 seats in the House, is also looking to strengthen its presence in the state.