SHIMLA: From Shimla to the icy heights of Spiti, people across Himachal Pradesh voted on Saturday to elect a new state government. It is a crucial test for the BJP hoping to beat precedent and return to power as well as for the Congress looking for electoral revival.
Voting began at 8 am on a slow note but picked up as the day progressed and the sun warmed the winter chill. By 1 pm, 37.19 per cent of the electorate had voted, the Election Commission said.
Polling will continue till 5 pm in all 68 assembly constituencies.
The highest polling of 41.89 per cent till 1 pm was recorded in Sirmour district, followed by 41.17 per cent in Mandi, Chief Minister Jairam Thakur’s home district. The high altitude district of Lahaul and Spiti recorded 21.95 per cent.
As voting got under way, people could be seen basking in the sun as they waited for their turn, and some, in the higher reaches of the mountains, trudging through snow to reach polling stations.
In an early morning message to voters, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged them to enthusiastically participate in the “festival of democracy” and register a voting record. In a tweet, Modi also greeted young voters who will be exercising their franchise for the first time.
The chief minister echoed him and said every vote will help build a prosperous Himachal Pradesh.
Thakur addressed the prime minister in a separate tweet and said there was a lot of enthusiasm among voters.
“Certainly, according to your call, voters in the state will create a new record by participating in the polling and are going to create a new ‘riwaaz’ (trend). Warm greetings to you,” Thakur, who voted in Mandi with his wife and daughters in Mandi after offering prayers at a temple, said in Hindi.
“We are confident of the BJP’s grand victory. We are getting good feedback,” he told reporters in Mandi from where he is contesting.
Enthusing voters to back the Congress, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi also asked them to turn out in large numbers and make their contribution in the progress and prosperous future of the state.
“Himachal will vote for OPS (old pension scheme), Himachal will vote for employment, Himachal will vote for ‘Har Ghar Lakshmi’,” he said in a tweet in Hindi.
If the ruling BJP is hoping for an encore on the back of its development agenda, the opposition Congress, desperate to wrest the state back from the BJP after multiple electoral losses and losing nine states in two years, is appealing to voters to go by the four-decade tradition of voting out incumbents in the state.
The grand old party has made a host of promises, including Rs 1,500 to all women every month under the Har Ghar Lakshmi’ scheme, 300 units of free power and five lakh jobs in the next five years. It has also promised Rs 680-crore StartUp fund.
The saffron party has promised implementation of the Uniform Civil Code and eight lakh jobs in the state, besides scooties to college going girls and cycles to school girls belonging to weaker sections.
More than 55 lakh voters in the state are deciding the fate of 412 candidates in this high stakes political battle. These include Vikramaditya Singh, son of former chief minister Virbhadhra Singh and state Congress chief Pratibha Singh who is contesting from Shimla Rural. He and his mother prayed at the Shani temple in Shimla before casting their votes.
Twenty-four women candidates are in the fray this time. Of the total voters, 28,54,945 are male and 27,37,845 female.
Former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, his son and Union minister Anurag Thakur voted in Hamirpur. BJP president J P Nadda voted with his family in Bilaspur.
Former Union minister Anand Sharma exercised his franchise in Shimla while CLP leader Mukesh Agnihotri did so in Haroli from where he is contesting.
Modi has led the campaign from the front for the BJP, wrapping up his canvassing with a personal appeal to voters of the state, saying that every vote cast for the BJP symbol “lotus” will enhance his strength.
It has also asked voters to change the “riwaaz” by re-electing the BJP, saying the “double engine” regime will continue to work for all-round development.
The Congress has backed principally on Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is the new entrant in Himachal and is contesting in 67 of 68 seats, has been fairly quiet as the contest shaped up as a direct one between the BJP and the Congress in line with past trends.
Voting began after poll officials conducted a mock drill at all booths to check EVMs.
“Nearly 50,000 polling staff and around 25,000 security staff have been deployed,” Himachal Pradesh’s Chief Electoral Officer Maneesh Garg told PTI.
The Election Commission has set up 7,884 polling stations, including three auxiliary voting stations in far flung areas. Of these, 789 are vulnerable booths and 397 critical ones.
The highest booth is in Tashigang, Kaza in Spiti area of Lahaul Spiti district at a height of 15,256 feet. It caters to 52 voters.