Voting has started at some constituencies of the 18 seats in the Maoist-hit areas of Chhattisgarh under heavy security cover, flagging off the last round of assembly polls before next year's general elections. The remaining 72 constituencies will vote on November 20. The Raman Singh government, which has been in power for three consecutive terms, is seeking a fourth mandate. The Congress hopes to recapture power claiming huge anti-incumbency. Former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi's new party is also in the fray, in alliance with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. The Congress, which failed to seal a deal with the Dalit powerhouse, fears the combination will dent its chances.
Of the 18 seats going to polls today, eight are held by the Congress and the rest by the BJP. The last phase of the campaign had witnessed bitter political sparring, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath accusing the Congress of being responsible for the rise of Maoists in the state and supporting "urban Naxals".
The Congress has focused on local issues - promising farm loan waiver and liquor ban in the state. Party chief Rahul Gandhi has accused Chief Minister Raman Singh and his son of corruption. The furious Chief Minister has hit back, saying Mr Gandhi was "sort of an entertainment" for people in the state. The Congress was dealt another blow on Sunday, when state party vice-president Ghanaram Sahu resigned hours before the polls.
The elections take place under the shadow of repeated Maoist attacks. The Maoists - who, for more than a decade, have called for a boycott of voting - are fighting tooth and nail to derail the elections.
Intelligence reports say Maoists from Maharashtra, Telangana, Odisha and other states on the Maoist corridor are in Chhattisgarh ahead of the first phase of elections. Drones are being used to conduct recces before security forces move in to make the areas safe for election officials.
Around 1 lakh security personnel have been deployed in Chhattisgarh to ensure that the polling goes off smoothly. More than 12 helicopters have been pressed into service in highly sensitive regions. For over two dozen booths, poll officials will be ferried by bikes, boats or on foot.
This morning Maoists triggered seven explosions and took on security forces in Kanker district, 175 km from state capital Raipur, in which a BSF man was killed. Over the last two weeks, there have been seven attacks on security personnel and visiting media personnel. Around 300 Improvised Explosive Devices have been recovered from the Bastar region.
The 66-year-old three-time Chief Minister, Raman Singh, is contesting from Rajnandgaon constituency. His challenger is BJP-turned-Congress leader Karuna Shukla, a niece of late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Ms Shukla had been a member of the BJP for three decades. She left the party in 2013, accusing it of mental torture.
The Ajit Jogi-led Janta Congress Chhattisgarh party, which is expected to dent the Congress voter base, especially in terms of caste, has been wooing tribals by offering farm loans waivers and jobs for local youths. "We will win maximum seats from Bastar, the people there have lost faith in both the BJP and the Congress," said party spokesman Nitin Bhansali.
Mr Jogi, whose government was swept out by the Raman Singh-led BJP in 2003, has released his party's manifesto on stamp paper as a mark of his commitment. "If I don't fulfil promises made in it, I can be sent to jail," he has said, challenging the BJP and the Congress to do the same.
The second phase of the Chhattisgarh election will be held on November 20 and the votes will be counted on December 11. The results of four other states where assembly elections are being held - Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan - will be declared the same day.
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