The crucial elections to four states kick off on Monday, with the first phase of Assembly polls being held in Chhattisgarh. The 18 seats that will vote in the first phase, 12 of them in the extremely sensitive Bastar region, could hold the key to who forms the government in the state. Chief Minister Raman Singh is looking at a fourth shot at power, and the Congress at retaining its hold in this area that gave it 12 of the 18 seats last time.
The stakes are also high due to the violence that has marked the run-up to the polls in this Maoist-dominated region. Sunday saw another attack, with a BSF Assistant Sub-Inspector killed as six IEDs targeted an area-domination party early in the morning. In another incident, in Bijapur district in Bedre area, an alleged Maoist was killed in a shootout with the Chhattisgarh Police. Earlier, a Doordarshan photojournalist, eight security personnel and four civilians were killed in attacks.
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Senior officials assured on Sunday that they had taken all measures to ensure free and fair polling, with voting in sensitive areas to start at 7 am and wrap up by 3 pm. Election teams have been leaving for these posts by helicopters over the past two days.
Superintendent of Police, Dantewada, Abhishek Pallava hoped that despite measures by Maoists such as use of IEDs and traps such as spike holes, people would turn out to vote.
A senior political leader in Dantewada admitted they were tense. “If you look at Bijapur and Dantewada and Sukma in general, not just the events that have happened, but how active the Maoists are… we have told even our workers not to risk their lives.”
Apart from the 12 seats of Bastar, all eyes are also on the six constituencies of Rajnandgaon district. The Congress here again holds a 4-2 advantage. Rajnandgaon seat itself will see a contest between Raman Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s niece Karuna Shukla. The MP from the area is Singh’s son Abhishek Singh. On the last two days of campaigning, both Congress president Rahul Gandhi and BJP chief Amit Shah held rallies here.
While the BJP is playing on the discontent against Congress sitting MLAs, the Congress campaign is based around the anti-incumbency against the government, and the seats seem to be going down to the wire.
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In Bastar, where the Congress currently holds eight of the 12 seats, elections tend to be centered around local faces, and the party is banking on its popular local sitting MLAs. However, the spoilers this time might be the Ajit Jogi-BSP-CPI combine, which seems to have a hold in Konta and Dantewada seats, and the Aam Aadmi Party, which may not win but could take away crucial votes in seats like Dantewada, and the Kanker region.
In a state where margins have always been close, this difference could change the outcome of the results. The BJP, which has been working hard to make inroads especially in North Bastar, is facing a tough fight in the four Bastar seats it holds, including those of two of its ministers, Kedar Kashyap and Mahesh Gagda.
The second and final phase of the Chhattisgarh elections will be held on November 20, for the 72 remaining seats. The results will be declared on December 11.