Sporadic incidents of violence and widespread snags in voting machines marred a brisk day of polling across Punjab and Goa as a month-long assembly election cycle in five states kicked off on Saturday.
In Punjab, 75% of nearly 20 million voters cast their vote by 5pm with heavy polling in the Malwa region that elects 69 of Punjab’s 117 legislators. The poll percentage might rise further.
The state is witnessing an unprecedented three-cornered contest between the Akali Dal-BJP combine, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The polling percentage in the 2012 assembly elections was 78.5%.
“Barring stray incidents of violence, the polling in single-phase remained peaceful,” additional director general of police (ADGP- elections) VK Bhawra said.
The Election Commission (EC) said more than 80% voters exercised their franchise in districts such as Fatehgarh Sahib, Faridkot and Sangrur. Experts said this clearly indicated a fiercely fought three-cornered battle in Malwa.
But, this trend was missing in Doaba and Majha where voting percentage dipped, pointing towards a two-horse race between the Congress and Akalis.
In Goa, the voter turnout stood at a record 83%, compared to 81.7% in the last assembly election. The incumbent BJP is fighting against the Congress, the AAP and a local alliance between the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, the Goa Suraksha Manch and the Shiv Sena.
A 78-year-old man also lost his life after suffering a heart attack while standing in a queue at a polling station in Panaji constituency in north Goa.
Punjab and Goa will be followed by assembly elections in Uttarakhand, Manipur and the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, which will see seven-phase polls. The results of all states will be announced on March 11.
In Punjab, officials seized Rs 58 crore in cash, liquor worth Rs 13.35 crore, drugs worth Rs 18.26 crore and reported 59 cases of paid news. In Goa, officials seized Rs 2.24 crore in cash, liquor worth Rs 1 crore and drugs worth Rs 34 lakh. In Punjab, two people were injured in clashes between AAP and Congress workers in Sangrur district, police said. In Tarn Taran district, a Congress worker identified as Jagjit Singh was injured when an Akali supporter allegedly opened fire, they said.
Voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines installed for the first time as a pilot in 33 assembly constituencies and two assembly segments of the Amritsar parliament seat that went to the bypolls simultaneously, turned out to be a “flop show” and “cause of embarrassment” for the poll officials.
In total, 538 trial machines developed snags during the mock polls and 187 were changed by halting the voting. Most reports of faulty trail machines came from Majitha, Muktsar, Sangrur, Barnala and Bathinda constituencies.
“It’s a logistic nightmare, we have fewer engineers and more complaints,” said chief electoral officer of Punjab, VK Singh.
For instance, polling began at 11.30am instead of 8am in booth number 33 of Majitha in Amritsar district due to technical problems in the voting machine.
The sitting MLA and minister Bikram Singh Majithia could not cast his vote in his first attempt.
In Lambi, where chief minister Parkash Singh Badal is squaring off against Congress CM candidate Amarinder Singh, 78% voters pressed the EVM button.
In Singh’s Patiala seat, the poll percentage stood at 67% and was likely to rise.
In Goa, the VVPAT system faced less glitches.
“We were expecting some technical glitches as it is the first time that the VVPAT system is being used. We had instructed our staff to ensure that we have a speedy action plan if any such case surfaces,” said Kunal, chief electoral officer.
Though by and large, officers were able to solve the issue, the EC recommended re-polling at a booth in Margao in south Goa. Around 800 voters were unable to cast their vote due to the machine recording mock votes as well.
“We spotted that the mock votes were also being counted by the machine and were not getting erased. It is for this reason that we decided to send the voters back and not continue with polling,” he said.
The idea of the Election Commission to make 40 “pink booths” in all the 40 assembly constituencies was a hit, as young first-time female voters could be seen enjoying the attention. The CEO had decided to give a pink teddy bear and a pen to first-time female voters coming to these stations.
“I am casting my vote for the first time and it feels great to receive a token of appreciation from a government body. Also it will encourage several youngsters to come out and cast their mandate,” said Alina Edward, an 18-year-old student.
Kunal said these booths recorded a higher percentage of 2% to 5%.
In Punjab, the hitch-ridden polling appeared to upset the AAP, which questioned why voting started an hour late in Punjab, 8am, than Goa, where booths opened at 7am.
Party chief Arvind Kejriwal called the poll panel spineless and blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for its “biased functioning”. Later in the day, all three major parties thanked the people for peaceful polls.
The EC said re-polling in Majithia was expected on Sunday. A polling station in Moga constituency might go for a re-poll, as staff failed to delete mock votes before the start of actual voting.
(with agency inputs)