Up to 60 per cent of the registered voters turned out to stamp their choice in the first phase of assembly polls in Gujarat on Tuesday, election officials said. The high turnout, analysts said, could go against BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
Voting in 87 constituencies in Kutch, Saurashtra and south Gujarat began slowly. More people cast their ballots in rural areas than in urban centres, the office of Gujarat’s chief electoral officer VK Babbar, said. The remaining 95 of the 182 seats will go to polls on December 16.
<b1>"This round does not seem to be favourable for Narendra Modi. Less voting in urban centres like Surat, while a higher turnout in rural and tribal areas shows this round has been better for the Congress," said Ahmedabad-based political analyst Achyut Yagnik.
He said Modi would have to do well in the final round of 95 seats, which include his strongholds in Ahmedabad and north Gujarat. "Finally, Saurashtra may hold the key in this election," Yagnik said.
An exit poll carried out by NDTV after the first phase of polling gave the BJP 40 seats, the Congress 43, and others 3. STAR gave the BJP 48 seats, the Congress 37, and others 1.
Results of the election, a crucial test for Modi, are due on December 23. Modi has been selling his development programmes to the electorate of a state scarred by bloody anti-Muslim riots in 2002, which he was accused of inciting.
A win would give him another five-year mandate and a possible chance to grab the national leadership of the BJP, which has declared an ageing LK Advani as its prime ministerial candidate in parliamentary polls due in 2009.
State Finance Minister Vajubhai Vala, who is contesting from the Rajkot II seat for the sixth consecutive time, said that the BJP would improve its tally from the 130 seats it holds in the outgoing assembly despite internal dissidence. "The government has delivered what it had promised. I am sure that our tally will improve," he said.
The first phase, considered key to the BJP retaining power, will decide the fate of 669 candidates, including Vala, Urban Development Minister IK Jadeja, opposition leader Arjun Modhvadiya and a clutch of BJP rebels who have rebelled against Modi.
But all eyes on Tuesday were on Saurashtra, a region where Modi and the BJP are battling a revolt from former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who did not vote in protest against the party's decision to give Modi a free hand. An advertisement by an outfit floated by party rebels -- Sardar Patel Utkarsh Samiti -- appeared in Gujarati-language newspapers on Friday with an appeal from Patel to vote for democracy and change in Gujarat.
In Saurashtra, where caste factors hold the key to the results, five BJP dissident leaders are contesting on Congress tickets. In the adjoining Kutch region, former BJP chief minister Suresh Mehta who quit the party three days ago, asking the people to vote for a change, led the rebels.
"The voters of Gujarat are very wise and they will vote for a change for the betterment of the state and themselves," prominent dissident leader and former union textile minister Kanshiram Rana said after casting his vote.
Dhiren Pithia from Keshod town in Junagadh district said that people in his area had voted against the BJP because of Modi's anti-farmer policies. He did not elaborate.
The Congress, which had won 51 seats in the previous assembly, is hoping that caste combinations and the rebellion within the BJP would help it make major electoral gains. "We are sure that this time it will be the Congress that will form the government," said Modhvadia, who is contesting from Porbander.