Kondagaon/Raipur: Amid heavy security, 18 constituencies in the Naxal strongholds of Bastar and Rajnandgaon went to polls today in Chhattisgarh, marking the beginning of the battle of the ballot in five states, considered a semi-final to the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
As voting began, fresh violence was reported from Bastar, where a BSF jawan has been injured in a blast in the Kanker region.Yesterday, two personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) were injured in a landmine blast in Rajnandgaon.
Chief Minister Raman Singh and his three ministers in the BJP government are among 143 candidates contesting from 12 constituencies in Bastar division and six constituencies of Rajnandgaon district with an electorate of 29,33,200 in the first of the two-phase polls to the 90-member assembly.
Mr Singh, who is aiming at a hat-trick against the Congress, is contesting from Rajnandgaon, where Naxals struck on the eve of polling. Two ITBP jawans were injured in a blast triggered by Naxals when a polling party was heading towards Baldongri booth.
Maoists have put up posters calling for the boycott of elections in the state.
Out of the 18 seats going to polls today, BJP had won 15 while Congress had bagged three in the last election.
Barely six months ago, Naxals had ambushed a convoy of Congress leaders in Bastar, killing 27 people and virtually wiping out the entire party leadership, including state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh, tribal leader Mahendra Karma who had founded the Salwa Judum and former legislator Uday Mudliyar. Senior leader Vidya Charan Shukla, 84, succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.
Police personnel are keeping a hawk eye in the state and along its borders with Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
"A large number of security personnel have been deployed across the state. I am very confident of peaceful elections in the state," Chhattisgarh's Director General of Police (DGP) Ram Niwas told PTI.
He said the police had done micro-level planning to ensure a violence-free election.
"We have been getting support from people also who are giving us crucial information related to security arrangements. They have also helped in detection of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from some of the areas," said the DGP.
Polling in 12 constituencies of Bastar and one in Rajnandgaon district will be held from 7 AM to 3 PM.
At least 85,000 personnel from central paramilitary forces have been deployed on poll duty in the state.
The chief minister's main rival is Congress' Alka Mudliyar, wife of killed Congress leader Uday Mudliyar.
Raman Singh had defeated Uday Mudliyar with a margin of 32,389 votes in the last election.
Devati Karma, wife of Mahendra Karma, has been fielded from Dantewada-ST seat.
The Naxal ambush in May 25 has been raked up during campaigning in the southern part of the state, which saw high-profile visits by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son and party vice president Rahul Gandhi as well as Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Tribal Welfare Minister Kedar Kashyap had won the Narayanpur segment in 2008 against Congress candidate Rajnuram Netam by a huge margin of 21,635 votes. This time, the main opposition party has fielded a low-profile party worker, Chandan Kashyap, from this seat to take on Mr Kashyap.
Sports Minister Lata Usendi had previously defeated Congressman Mohan Markam from Kondagon seat in a close contest by 2,771 votes. Mr Markam has been provided a second chance from this seat.
Forest Minister Vikram Usendi has been fielded from Antagarh seat which he had won against former Congress MLA Manturam Pawar in the last elections with a margin of a mere 109 votes.
The sole sitting MLA of Congress in Bastar, Kawasi Lakhma, has been renominated from Konta seat.
The constituencies going to polls today are Khairagarh, Dongargarh, Rajnandgaon, Dongargaon, Khujji, Mohla-Manpur, Antagarh, Bhanupratappur, Kanker, Keshkal, Kondagaon, Narayanpur, Bastar, Jagdalpur, Chitrakot, Dantewada, Bijapur and Konta.
A total of 4,142 polling booths have been set up for the first phase of which 1,517 have been declared as sensitive while 1,311 have been declared as hyper-sensitive stations.
Security forces have been directed to sanitise school buildings and other premises to be used for polling in hyper-sensitive areas.
The other precautionary orders given to security forces, particularly to those who have arrived from other states for conducting polls, are to not venture into forest areas in search of mobile phone signals and to go to restrooms with security cover, a senior police official said on condition of anonymity.
Maoists could take advantage of such situations to launch an attack on police personnel, as they have done in the past, he said.
Security forces have been strictly instructed to conduct de-mining exercise inside school premises being used for polling before entering there, the official said.
"Not only the ground but walls and blackboards in schools are also to be checked as Intelligence Bureau has tipped off that IEDs could be planted anywhere," he said.
The rest 72 constituencies, including Bilaspur and state capital Raipur, are scheduled for polls on November 19.
Senior police officials said while the focus was on the security of areas which go to polls on Monday, extra vigil was being maintained in almost other parts of the state as well.
A total of 462 companies (46,200 personnel) have been recently sent by the Centre for security-related duty in addition to the existing 40 battalions (40,000 men and women) of paramilitary forces who are engaged in anti-Naxal operations and other security-related duty in the state, official sources said.