Raipur: Polling began Friday morning for the second and final phase of assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, where 958 candidates, including Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Deputy CM T S Singh Deo, eight state ministers and four members of Parliament are in the fray for 70 seats.
Polling began at 7 am in nine polling booths in Naxal-affected Bindranawagarh seat in Gariaband district for security reasons and will end at 3 pm.
The polling time in all the 70 constituencies is from 8 am to 5 pm, except in these nine booths, an official said. The booths are Kamarbhaudi, Amamora, Odh, Bade Gobra, Ganwargaon, Gariba, Nagesh, Sahbinkachhar and Kodomali.
The first phase of elections for 20 seats in the Naxal-affected state, which has a 90-member assembly, was held on November 7 and saw a high voter turnout of 78 per cent.
The ruling Congress, voted to office in 2018 after 15 years in opposition, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the main contenders for power in the state, where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and some regional outfits are also in the fray.
While the Congress has set an ambitious target of winning 75-plus assembly seats, the opposition BJP is seeking to make a comeback to power in the state which it ruled for 15 years non-stop — from 2003 to 2018.
A total of 958 candidates — 827 men, 130 women and one transgender person — are contesting for 70 seats spread across 22 districts. As many as 1,63,14,479 voters — 81,41,624 men , 81,72,171 women and 684 of third gender — are eligible to exercise their franchise at 18,833 polling booths.
At 26, the Raipur City West seat has the highest number of contestants, while Dondilohara in Balod district has the lowest count of candidates at four.
Among the candidates, 70 each are from the BJP and the Congress. There are 43 nominees from the AAP, 62 from the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (J) and 33 from the Hamar Raj Party in the fray. The Mayawati-led BSP and the Gondwana Ganatantra Party, a regional political outfit, are contesting in alliance and have fielded 43 and 26 candidates, respectively.
While the main fight is between bitter rivals BJP and the Congress, a three-way contest is on the cards in several seats of the Bilaspur division where former CM Ajit Jogi’s party and the BSP have pockets of influence. The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has also been focusing on seats in the division.
Of the total 18,833 booths, 700 are “sangwari” polling booths which are being entirely managed by women personnel.
Chief Minister Baghel (Patan seat), T S Singh Deo (Ambikapur), assembly speaker Charan Das Mahant (Sakti), eight state ministers, including Tamrdhwaj Sahu (Durg Rural) and Ravindra Choubey (Saja), are among prominent Congress candidates in the second phase.
From the BJP, state unit chief and MP Arun Sao (Lormi), Leader of Opposition in the assembly Narayan Chandel (Janjgir-Champa), Union Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Renuka Singh (Bharatpur-Sonhat-ST), MP Gomti Sai (Pathalgaon-ST), former ministers Brijmohan Agrawal (Raipur South), Ajay Chandrakar (Kurud) and Punnulal Mohile (Mungeli) are among key candidates in the second and final phase.
Baghel has been contesting from his traditional Patan seat where the BJP has fielded his distant nephew and party MP Vijay Baghel. The candidature of Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (J) state president and son of former chief minister Ajit Jogi, Amit Jogi, in Patan has added a new dimension to the contest.
The BJP has fielded a fresh face, Rajesh Agrawal, against Singh Deo in Ambikapur. Agrawal had joined the BJP, after quitting the Congress, ahead of the assembly polls in 2018.
Of the 70 assembly segments up for grabs, 44 are in the general category, while 17 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes and nine for Scheduled Castes.
In the previous assembly polls in 2018, the Congress had won 51 of these 70 constituencies, while the BJP ended up with 13. The Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (J) had bagged four seats and the BSP two. The Congress later won one more seat in a bypoll.
The BJP’s poll campaign was spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who addressed four well-attended rallies for the second phase and targeted the Baghel-led government over corruption, particularly the alleged Mahadev betting app scam, recruitment scandal and Naxalism.
Top BJP leaders, while on campaign trail, also criticised Chief Minister Baghel over the alleged betting app scam and religious conversion, and accused the ruling Congress of indulging in appeasement politics.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, senior leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi and CM Baghel led the campaign for the ruling party and mounted a counter-offensive claiming their party is concerned about the interest of the poor, while the BJP-led Centre only works for the welfare of the rich.
The Congress based its campaign on a slew of welfare schemes rolled out by the Baghel government for farmers, women, tribals and Dalits, and accused the Centre of handing over resources to select industrialists. The party has tried to woo farmers with the promise of a loan waiver, also made by it in 2018, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) with a caste survey.
AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal and BSP chief Mayawati also campaigned for their party candidates.
The Congress registered a landslide victory in the 2018 polls, winning 68 of the 90 seats. The BJP was reduced to just 15 seats, while the JCC (J) and the BSP bagged 5 and 2 seats, respectively. The Congress later added more seats in bypolls and its tally in the outgoing assembly is 71.