Shimla: A record 74.62 per cent of the 46 lakh voters in Himachal Pradesh today exercised their franchise in the Assembly election where the ruling BJP and the Congress are locked in a virtual straight contest.
After a slow start, polling for the 68-member Assembly picked up as the day progressed and the hill state witnessed a massive turnout.
As per the voting figures till 5 PM, 74.62 per cent polling had been registered in the state and the percentage was expected to go up, election officials said.
Election Commission Director General Akshay Raut told reporters in Delhi that the polling was violence-free.
Deputy Election Commissioner Alok Shukla said since counting of votes would be held on December 20 after the Gujarat election, elaborate arrangements have been made to keep the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) under CCTV vigil and guarded by central paramilitary forces.
The electorate in Himachal Pradesh comprises 46.08 lakh voters, including 22.31 lakh women. 7,253 polling stations were set up, including in Hikkim in Lahaul and Spiti at a height of over 15,000 feet. In all, 459 candidates are in the fray, 34 of them being women.
The main contest is between the ruling BJP and the Congress which have fielded candidates in all the seats. Led by Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, the incumbent BJP is hoping to script history in Himachal Pradesh by going the Punjab way, where the Akali Dal-BJP combine returned to power. The state has never repeated a government since 1977.
Congress leader and five-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh cast his ballot at his native place in Rampur town, some 120 kilometres from Shimla, while the Chief Minister exercised his franchise in Hamirpur.
In the run up to today's polling, issues like price rise and corruption seemed to have surpassed the anti-incumbency factor.
The BSP has fielded 66 candidates followed by the Himachal Lokhit Party (36), Trinamool Congress (25), Samajwadi Party (16), Communist Party of India-Marxists (15), Nationalist Congress Party and Swabhiman Party (12 each), Communist Party of India (7), Shiv Sena (4) and 105 Independents.
In the 2007 poll, the BJP had won 41 as against the Congress' 23, while the independents and BSP had bagged three and one seats respectively.
Chief Electoral Officer Narinder Chauhan said polling was held simultaneously in all the constituencies, including three tribal constituencies after 19 years.
The exercise passed off peacefully barring minor incidents involving rival party workers in Chamba, Una and Palampur, he said.
Polling started on a dull note in the morning hours due to cold weather conditions but by 4 pm nearly 70 per cent voters had cast their ballot. Chamba, Kullu, Una, Sirmaur, Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti recorded heavy polling.
Polling was 100 per cent in Kaa polling station in Kinnaur where all 18 voters had cast their vote by noon.
Shimla constituency recorded the lowest polling of 49 per cent and Shimla (Rural) and Kusumpti 60 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.
The turnout was above 75 per cent in Kullu, Chamba, Mandi and Una districts and Shillai constituency in Simmer district.
Manali and Banjjar in Kullu district recorded 77 per cent polling while it was 75 per cent in other two constituencies of Kullu and Ani, according to preliminary figures.
In Chamba district Churah recorded 78 per cent polling while Dalhousie, Chamba and Bhatiyyat seats saw 71, 65 and 74 per cent polling. In Mandi district having ten constituencies, polling was above 73 per cent except in Jognider Nagar while all five constituencies in Sirmaour recorded polling above 80 per cent.
The average polling in Kangra district was around 68 per cent with some constituencies in Nurpur sub-division recording above 70 per cent polling. The tribal Lahaul and Spiti constituency with 22,344 votes recorded heavy polling, exceeding 77 per cent.
The Election Commission said in Delhi that Shimla, which had "serious urban apathy" towards voting, has also registered an increase in turnout.
Corruption in both BJP and Congress camps was a major election issue in the state this time, with the latter facing graver charges in the wake of scams such as coal block allocations, 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games by Congress-led UPA at the Centre.
Though corruption charges have flown thick and fast throughout the period of campaigning, the Congress has somehow managed to neutralise their effect by launching a counter-offensive against Mr Dhumal and his Cabinet colleagues.
Virbhadra Singh has openly accused the chief minister of giving away chunks of prime land to private players at throwaway prices.
The much-hyped BJP offensive against Virbhadra Singh on corruption in the wake of a series of graft allegations against him got diluted after the Congress launched a counter-attack against BJP in wake of allegations of "dubious" funding by companies of its President Nitin Gadkari.
In fact, by the end of canvassing, corruption had taken a rear seat with price rise emerging the strongest. The BJP leadership used LPG cap and diesel price issues to push the Congress to the wall by telling voters how their household budgets would go for a toss.
Mr Dhumal tried to woo 22.31 lakh women voters by projecting free induction hotplates as his answer to Congress' LPG cap.
The local Congress leaders too were pushed to make the Centre stall another LPG price hike at the last moment.
Though national and local issues would make an impact on the poll results, emergence of BJP rebels under the umbrella of Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP) has made the fight interesting at least in a dozen seats.