A day before voters in 18 assembly seats in and around the Maoist stronghold of Bastar cast their ballot, a blast engineered by the rebels on Sunday gave a chilling reminder of their clout in the southern region of Chhattisgarh.
Two Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) troopers were
injured in the blast at Aundhi in Rajnandgaon district, which goes to polls along with Bastar on Monday. The improvised explosive device was planted beneath a dirt track.
The polling exercise is a challenge for security forces facing threats of disruption from the Maoists, and a tough test for the incumbent Raman Singh government.
Monday's vote is also the first of the six phases between now and December 4, during which five states - Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Delhi - go to polls, setting the tone and serving as a virtual semi-final for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Nearly 100,000 security personnel will be on watch during the vote, which covers 2.9 million eligible voters across 12 seats in Bastar and six in neighbouring Rajnandgaon district.
The warlike security deployment has been triggered by a call by Maoists to boycott the polls.
In 2008, when more than 60% voter turnout was seen in the region despite similar rebel threats, the Bharatiya Janata Party had won 16 of these 18 seats, powering its way to bag a total of 49 in the 90-member assembly.
This time though, the BJP faces other challenges - of anti-incumbency, corruption charges and a resurgent Congress.
"We are optimistic of winning from all constituencies including Konta, the only seat from Bastar that had gone to the Congress in 2008," chief minister Raman Singh, who is contesting from Rajnandgaon, said.
As for the Congress, vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been actively involved in picking candidates - 80% of them are new faces. Some political observers say that is going to pay off.
"Bastar is going to vote for change," Congress spokesperson and Bastar in-charge Bhakt Charan Das said.
Maoists loom large
East Coast Railways has stopped plying of passenger trains between Jagdalpur and Kirandul
BJP and Congress have avoided travelling by road and mostly used helicopters for campaigning in Bastar
Maoists lord over large tracts of Bastar, which accounts for most of the bloodshed in left-wing extremism across Chhattisgarh
Between 2008 and October 2013, 559 security personnel and 628 civilians were killed in Maoist violence in Chhattisgarh. During the same period, security personnel killed 366 Maoists
The red rebels have a presence in 16 of the state's 27 districts.
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