60% vote in 1st phase of Gujarat polls | india | Hindustan Times
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60% vote in 1st phase of Gujarat polls

india Updated: Dec 11, 2007 23:33 IST
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Over 10 million people, or 60 per cent of the electorate, voted peacefully Tuesday in the first round of polling to pick a new 182-member Gujarat state assembly in a battle of immense national significance.

The Election Commission announced that 59-60 per cent cast their ballot during the 10-hour exercise after a slow start in the morning to decide the fate of 669 candidates in 87 constituencies spread over 14 districts of Saurashtra, Kutch and south Gujarat.

Deputy Election Commissioner JP Prakash said that the balloting was "by and large peaceful and orderly". There was only one case of violence when supporters of two candidates clashed in Rajkot in Saurashtra region, he said.

One man was arrested with 15 voter identity cards and two presiding officers were shunted out on charges of violating the election code, Prakash said in New Delhi.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are locked in a close and one of the most politically crucial power battles in India in recent times to capture the western state that is one of the most industrialised with possibly the most communally polarised population.

The Gujarat election is particularly important for Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the country's most vocal Hindutva leader and one whose autocratic style of governance has spawned unprecedented dissidence in the state BJP.

Rural areas saw voters coming out in large numbers but the urban pockets witnessed low turnout. Saurashtra and Kutch account for 58 seats and they could decide who will form the next government after results are declared Dec 23.

Excepting a brief period, the BJP has ruled the state for the last 12 years. Under the leadership of Modi, who took power in 2001 replacing Keshubhai Patel, the BJP won a record 127 seats in the 2002 elections held after communal violence earlier that year polarised Hindu and Muslim voters as never before.

But this time the BJP faces widespread dissidence within, especially in the three regions that went to the polls Tuesday. Many senior leaders have openly criticised Modi for his supposedly autocratic ways.

The dissidence, led by former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, is expected to cost the party heavily. And the Congress is exploiting the situation by giving ticket to influential BJP dissidents.

An advertisement in local newspapers issued by an outfit floated by the BJP rebels under the name of Sardar Patel Utkarsh Samiti carried an appeal by Patel asking voters to go for "democracy and change" in Gujarat.

In Kutch, a district that borders Pakistan, the rebel factor was patently visible with former chief minister Suresh Mehta having quit the BJP three days back and asking people to vote against the ruling party.

In south Gujarat, tribals hold the key. But in the diamond city of Surat, dissidence in BJP is again rampant. Former BJP leader Dhiru Gajera contested on Congress ticket in Surat North.

BJP MP and former central minister Kashiram Rana said after casting his vote in Surat: "The voters of Gujarat are very wise and they will vote for change for the improvement of the state."

But Finance Minister Vajubhai Vala, who contested from the Rajkot II seat for the sixth time, said the BJP would only increase its strength in the house. "The government has delivered what it has promised. Our tally will improve."

The Congress is hopeful that the caste equations and the rebellion in BJP would help it to regain power in the state.

"The people have seen that they have been taken for a ride. They now want a change," said senior Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil, after casting his vote in Bhavnagar.

Added Arjun Modhvadia, the leader of the opposition in the assembly: "We are sure that this time the Congress will form the government."

Given the high stakes, both the main parties led a high-decibel campaign that was marred by allegations and counter-allegations.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi used the expression "merchants of death" apparently to describe the Modi government, but later the Congress denied this was so.

Modi responded by virtually justifying the extra-judicial killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a Muslim wrongly branded as terrorist. Both Gandhi and Modi were served notices by the Election Commission.

Modi has been campaigning mainly on the development plank. The Congress has been rubbishing his claims and promises to realise the optimum potential of Gujarat.

The fate of several political heavyweights was sealed in the first phase. They include Vajubhai Vala, Saurabh Patel, Narottam Patel, IK Jadeja and six other ministers, and Congress leaders Modhvadia and Gohil.

The second and last phase of polling for the remaining 95 seats will be held on Sunday.