Ahmedabad/New Delhi, Dec 9- Over 68 per cent turnout was recorded on Saturday in the first phase of polling for 89 Assembly seats in Gujarat where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress’s soon-to-be chief Rahul Gandhi are locked in a bitter, high-stakes battle after a 22-year BJP reign.
The final voting figure was set to go up as people stood in queues outside polling centres even after the closing time of 5 pm, Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha said in Delhi.
Four persons were injured in clashes between two groups of the same community at Chorvila village of Sayla tehsil of Surendranagar district. The polls, however, largely passed off peacefully.
Opposition leaders expressed apprehensions about electronic voting machine (EVM) tampering, a charge rejected by the EC. The BJP took pot-shots at the Congress saying that the party was looking for excuses.
State Election Commission officials said there were reports of technical glitches in EVMs in Surat and some other places, but the polling resumed after the machines were replaced.
Sixty eight per cent of the 2.1 crore voters exercised their franchise, Sinha said.
Responding to a series of questions on reports of EVM tampering, Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Jain said a complaint filed by a Congress candidate in Porbandar regarding his cell phone connecting to an EVM through ‘bluetooth’ was found to be incorrect.
The complaint was lodged by senior Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia.
Jain said experts found that the cell phone actually connected to the bluetooth of a polling agent’s mobile.
The EVM has “no receptors” and cannot be connected to any other device except the control unit and the paper trail machine, he said, adding it has no bluetooth or USB (pen drive in common parlance) port.
Officials said 977 candidates were in the fray from the 89 seats of Saurashtra and south Gujarat, of which 63 were won by the BJP and 22 by the Congress in the 2012 Assembly polls.
In the 2012 elections, the voting percentage was 70.07 while it was 60 per cent in 2007 polls in the corresponding constituencies of the 182-member Assembly.
Several key leaders, including Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, his opponent from Rajkot (West) Indranil Rajyaguru, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani were among the early voters.
Cricketer Cheteshwar Pujara also cast his vote in Rajkot.
Prominent candidates in today’s battle included Rupani and Congress’s Shaktisinh Gohil (Mandvi) and Paresh Dhanani (Amreli).
As the polling process began at 8 am, people stepped out of their houses braving the winter chill and queued up to cast votes.
With the marriage season on, brides and grooms, clad in wedding finery, came to polling booths along with their relatives to exercise their franchise. Many such voters were seen in Bharuch, Bhavnagar, Gondal and Surat.
A 115-year-old woman from Upleta town of Rajkot, Aajiben Chandravadia, also voted, reports said.
As per the turnout data of 8am to 5pm, both Navsari of south Gujarat and Morbi district of Saurashtra recorded the highest turnout of 75 per cent. Porbandar and Botad districts in Saurashtra recorded the lowest turnout of 60 per cent.
In Visavadar town of Junagadh district, BJP candidate Kirit Patel allegedly entered into a heated argument with the election officer. “That was a minor incident. Patel was unhappy over some issue related to the timing of the polling,” said an official.
In Surat, a person called Ashwin Patel, who claims to be running a parallel Patidar quota agitation, alleged that some persons attacked his car.
The election in Modi’s home state is crucial for the BJP and Congress ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and is seen as a prestige battle for the prime minister, who was the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, and a litmus test for the opposition party’s heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi.
Emotive issues of religion and caste competed with that of development and the attacks by the two parties often turned personal as leaders indulged in name-calling.
The Congress, in political wilderness in Gujarat for nearly 22 years, is desperate to break the jinx. It has raised questions on BJP’s Gujarat “development model”, demonetisation and GST.
The BJP is banking on its performance and Modi’s popularity to counter any anti-incumbency or the impact of the Patidar quota stir. Modi has attacked the Congress over the issue of dynastic politics and corruption and invoked “Gujarati pride’ in his campaign speeches.
While Modi addressed about 15 rallies for the first of the two-stage polls, Gandhi spent over seven days in Saurashtra and south Gujarat emerging as the Congress pivot to take on the prime minister on his home turf.
EC officials said a total of 26,865 ballot units (on which votes are cast), 24,689 control units which are kept with the presiding officer and an equal number of paper trail machines were deployed.
Out of these, 181 ballot units (0.6 per cent of the total), 223 control units (0.55 per cent of the total) and 714 paper trail machines (1.75 per cent of the total) were replaced during polling, they said.
Over 6,000 ballot papers were electronically transferred to service voters, a major achievement considering that the practice of e-ballots was new, Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena said in Delhi.
The second phase of polling in 93 seats will be held on December 14 while the counting of votes is scheduled on December 18. PTI