The ruling BJP is eyeing a fourth straight term in the tribal-dominated state as the opposition Congress seeks to return to power after 15 years.
Chief Minister Raman Singh, two state cabinet ministers and an incumbent BJP MP are among the 190 candidates contesting in 18 constituencies of the 90-member Assembly.
The stakes are very high for the saffron party on these 18 seats as it had lost 12 of them in the last polls held in 2013. Eyeing his fourth consecutive term as chief minister, Singh is contesting from Rajnandgaon seat where his main rival is Congress’ Karuna Shukla, the niece of former prime minister late Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
As many as 4,336 polling booths have been set up for the first phase of the state polls. There are 31,79,520 voters, including 16,21,839 males, 15,57,592 females and 89 of the third gender.
During the campaign for the polls, BJP leaders highlighted how Naxalism, which was at its peak during the Congress rule in the state, was contained during the last 15 years and also the development works taken up by the government.
Top BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Union minister Smriti Irani, campaigned for the saffron party and highlighted various achievements of the Raman Singh government.
On the other side, the Congress accused the BJP of “failing” to control the Naxal menace and referred to the chit fund and civil supply scams. It also targeted the chief minister’s son Abhishek Singh over his alleged offshore assets.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had held five rallies and a road show while campaigning for the first phase of the Assembly polls.
Nearly one lakh security personnel have been deployed in the Naxal-affected districts going to polls in the first phase amid the threat from Maoists who have called for a boycott of the elections.
On the eve of the polls, a sub-inspector of the Border Security Force (BSF) lost his life when Naxals detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kanker district while a Maoist was gunned down in an encounter in Bijapur district.
Naxal outfits have given calls for boycott of the election and executed over half-a-dozen attacks in the last 15 days, three of them major ones which left 13 people dead including a cameraman of national broadcaster Doordarshan who was covering the election campaign.
According to police, escorting polling parties to their destinations and bringing them back after the polls pose challenges to them in the Naxal hotbed.
“Around one lakh security personnel, including central paramilitary force, have been deployed to ensure peaceful polling in the first phase,” Chhattisgarh’s Special Director General (anti-Naxal operations) D M Awasthi said.
All counter measures have been taken to thwart attempts by Maoists to disrupt the poll process, he said.
A total of 650 companies (roughly around 65,000 security personnel), including of paramilitary forces like the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and other state forces, have been sent by the Centre for poll duty, he said.
These units are apart from the paramilitary personnel and 200 companies of state forces already engaged in the anti- Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, Awasthi said.
He said around 650 polling booth parties were airlifted by helicopters on Saturday to remote areas while other teams were being sent by road on Sunday.
Choppers of the Indian Air Force and the BSF were pressed into service for the purpose, he said. “The challenge is to escort all polling parties safely to their destination in Naxal-affected areas and later to conduct polls and bring back them safely,” Awasthi said.
He said there are inputs of Naxals planning to plant IEDs to target security men. “Therefore, a hawk eye was being kept on roads in such areas,” the official said.
Awasthi said forces that have arrived from other states have been advised to avoid using any road unless it has been sanitised by “road opening parties” (ROPs) or subjected to a de-mining exercise to detect and clear IEDs.
Security men have also been asked to avoid patrolling on foot as Naxals are known to place iron spikes to inflict injuries, he said. They have also been asked to maintain extra caution and sanitise polling booths and other premises in sensitive areas, he said.
In the last 10 days, over 300 IEDs were recovered from the Bastar region and Rajnandgaon district by security forces, he added. Drones have been deployed in sensitive areas to track the movements of Naxals as they might target polling personnel on way to the booths, he said.