Jan 30, 2012 at 03:09pm IST

Voting underway for close fight in Punjab, Uttarakhand

New Delhi: Around 1.76 crore voters will seal the fate of 1,078 candidates, including the two Chief Ministerial aspirants Parkash Singh Badal of ruling SAD-BJP and Amarinder Singh of opposition Congress, in fray for 117 assembly seats in Punjab where polling began on Monday amidst tight security at 8 am. The battle for electoral politics in Uttarakhand is also taking place on Monday.

Around 30 per cent of around 1.76 crore voters exercised their franchise till noon in the elections to 117-seat Punjab Assembly on Monday.

Despite the winter chill, some polling booths in Punjab, especially in rural areas, saw people lined up for voting before the booths were officially opened. In most parts of the state, it was a bright and sunny day.

In Jalandhar, voters started queuing up around 7.30 a.m itself despite the cold. In Badal village, the ancestral village of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, villagers started arriving at the polling station before 8 am.

The polling so far is peaceful with no untoward incident reported in the initial four hours of polling, he said.

The polling picked up around noon with a number of people, including women, queueing up before polling stations.

Over 73,000 security personnel, including 200 companies of paramilitary forces, have been deployed to ensure smooth and peaceful polling. The main contest is between the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance and the opposition Congress. A third front, Sanjha Morcha, has been formed recently and is led by former finance minister Manpreet Badal's newly floated People's Party of Punjab (PPP).

Five assembly constituencies - Patiala, Lambi, Bholath, Majithia and Jalalabad - have been declared hyper-sensitive while 33 constituencies have been declared sensitive by the EC. The total number of voters in the state are 17,683,559 out of which 8,361,014 are women voters.

The highest number of candidates, 16 each, are in the Jalalabad, Ludhiana-east and Patiala rural seats. The lowest number of candidates, four, are in fray in the Attari seat in border area of Amritsar district.

Polling commenced in 70 Assembly constituencies in Uttarakhand amid tight security with over 60 lakh voters expected to exercise their franchise in the single-phased elections. Over 63 lakh electorates will decide the fate of 788 candidates with the top contenders from the ruling BJP and Congress contesting all the 70 seats.

The polling in Uttarakhand began in a dull note this morning despite a clear sky, but picked up momentum slowly with 20 per cent voter turnout till noon. Only 10 per cent polling was recorded during the first two hours till 10 am but as the day progressed, the number of voters reaching the polling stations increased.

Top state leaders, including chief minister BC Khanduri from Kotdwar, former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank from Doiwala, Leader of Opposition Harak Singh Rawat from Rudraprayag and PCC chief Yashpal Arya from Baajpur seats will try their luck at the polls.

Polling commenced at 0800 hrs and would end at 1700 hrs, Uttarakhand Chief Electoral Officer Radha Raturi said. She said elaborate arrangements have been made for smooth conduct of polling and all the personnel deployed in high-altitude areas have been provided with sleeping bags, snow-boot and jackets.

An Indian Airforce helicopter has also been stationed at Sarsawa as part of rescue efforts to meet with any eventuality, Raturi added. She said 9744 polling booths have been set up across the state out of which 1794 stations have been declared as "sensitive" and 1252 as "hyper-sensitive".

A total of 75 companies of Central paramilitary force besides 10,000 home guards from Uttar Pradesh, 2000 home guards from Himachal Pradesh and 10,000 personnel from Uttarakhand Police have been deployed for the polls. Raturi said nearly Rs 1.40 crore in cash has so far been seized in various parts of the state.

All government, non-government offices, schools, colleges, industrial establishments and shops have been asked to remain closed on Monday, the official said.

Security has been tightened around all polling stations as the Election Commission clearly not wanting to take any chances after violence that broke out during Saturday's assembly elections in Manipur where 7 people lost their lives. Security forces staged a flag march in Ludhiana on Sunday. But the big worry in Uttarakhand is the weather. Parties are afraid that heavy snowfall in hilly areas may cause a low turnout.

One of the big names facing off in Punjab's single phase election on Monday is Parkash Singh Badal who is currently serving his 4th term as Chief Minister since 2007. The Shiromani Akali Dal leader is contensting from Lambi. Looking to wrest power from Badal is the Maharaja of Patiala Capt Amarinder Singh. The Congress leader had served as Chief Minister from 2002 to 2007.

Also in the race is Badal's son Sukhbir Singh Badal who is currently the Deputy Chief Minister and President of the Akali Dal. He's contesting from Jalalabad. Then there's Manpreet Singh Badal who left Akali Dal in March 2010 following differences over governance issues. He's contesting on a People's Party of Punjab ticket from Gidderbaha constituency.

Among women there's former state congress chief Rajinder Kaur Bhattal contesting from Lehra. She was Punjab's first woman to serve as Chief Minister in 1996. And finally former DGP Param Deep Singh Gill who is contesting on an Akali Dal ticket from Moga.

The key issues that have dominated this election are corruption, farmers' issues and unemployment in Punjab. The question is will these concerns dominate voting patterns. And can the Akalis defy the anti-incumbency and return to power in Punjab? More importantly, will the BJP propel or drag down the performance of their alliance with Akalis? Also, will Manpreet Badal's Punjab People's Party make an impact on poll outcome?

(With additional inputs from agencies)

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