Raipur, Nov 12: Amid sporadic violence by Maoists, nearly 65 per cent of the electorate voted on Monday till 3 p.m. in 18 constituencies in the first first phase of Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh that marks the start of five-state elections widely seen as a 'semi-final' ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha battle.
According to the Election Commission, over 20 lakh of the 31 lakh electorate had voted across eight insurgency-hit districts. Polling in 10 constituencies in the Maoist hub in Bastar ended at 3 p.m. and in the rest at 5 p.m.
The highest turnout was recorded in Mohalla-Manpur in Rajnandgaon district at 67 per cent followed by 62 per cent in Kanker in Kanker district.
Maoists detonated an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Katekalyan in Dantewada district, minutes before the polling began, narrowly missing a foot patrol of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
In a later gun battle with the rebels, two CRPF personnel were injured in Pamed in Bijapur district.
Security personnel also recovered IEDs planted by Maoists near a polling station in Bijapur and in Sukma district.
The rebels have given a poll boycott call and have carried out multiple attacks in the last few weeks, killing several people including a BSF officer and a journalist.
As the voting progressed, the Congress alleged "rampant" rigging of EVMs in Bastar area but the poll panel rejected the charge.
The poll panel rejected the charges saying "certain sources were spreading rumours of EVM malfunctioning and rigging". The panel said it promptly replaced over three dozen EVMs and 61 VVPAT machines due to technical snags.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has ruled Chhattisgarh for the past 15 years.
Over 31 lakh voters, including over 15 lakh men and in excess of 16 lakh women, were eligible to exercise their franchise in 4,336 polling booths on Monday with 190 candidates in the fray.
The constituencies which went to the polls were Narayanpur, Dantewada, Bijapur, Konta, Mohla-Manpur, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Khairagarh, Dongargarh, Rajnandgaon, Dongargaon, Khujji, Bastar, Jagdalpur and Chitrakot.
The BJP lost 12 of these 18 seats in 2013.
Amid the polling for the first phase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the campaign for the second phase by addressing an election rally in Bilaspur.
The prominent faces in the first phase include Chief Minister Raman Singh, pitted against Congress' Karuna Shukla in his home turf Rajnandgaon. Shukla, a niece of late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee switched to Congress from the BJP in 2014.
The Congress has promised farm loan waiver, minimum support price for crops as per the Swaminathan Commission recommendations and special women police stations.
Hoping to retain the state for a fourth straight term, the BJP has promised to give Rs 2 lakh interest-free loans to women to start business; distribute free books and uniforms to students till Class 12; form a journalist welfare board and to build a Film City in the state.
Also contesting is Mayawati's BSP which has aligned with the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress of former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi and the Communist Party of India.
Twelve of the 18 seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) and one is reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) category.
The second and final phase of polling in Chhattisgarh will be held on November 20. The vote count will take place on December 11.
In 2013, the Congress won 39 seats garnering 40.3 per cent of the vote share while the BJP won 49 seats with a 41.04 per cent vote share.
Pundits are viewing this round of Assembly polls across the five states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana as a 'semi-final' before the country plunges into the Lok Sabha battle.