Peaceful first phase

Print edition : September 11, 1999

THE first phase of voting in the general elections, on September 5 in 16 States, the National Capital Territory of Delhi and five Union Territories, was largely peaceful. An average voter turnout of 55 per cent was recorded in this phase. which covered 1 45 Lok Sabha and 343 Assembly constituencies. Nearly 25 million voters used electronic voting machines (EVMs), which performed without any glitches. In some constituencies where EVMs were used, a higher turnout of voters was noticed.

There were at least two isolated incidents of violence. In Cuddapah district of Andhra Pradesh, five persons, including a polling agent of the ruling Telugu Desam Party, died. Four deaths resulted from police firing on supporters of the TDP and the Congr ess(I) as they threw bombs at each other in the Badvel Assembly constituency. The polling agent was killed in a bomb attack in the Kamlapuram Assembly segment.

In Amritsar, Punjab, a Congress(I) polling agent died in "clashes" between the supporters of the Congress(I) and the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal. Two minor incidents were reported from Faridkot and Ferozepur districts of the State.

Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill expressed satisfaction with the first phase of polling. The Statewise polling percentages are: Andhra Pradesh 65; Goa 45; Gujarat 40; Haryana 62; Karnataka 63 (65 in Bellary); Maharashtra 60; Punjab, Rajasthan, and T amil Nadu 55; Delhi 47; Andaman and Nicobar Islands 53; Chandigarh 54; Dadra and Nagar Haveli 51; Daman 70 and Pondicherry 60.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the turnout was 15 per cent in Srinagar, one of two constituencies that went to the polls. In Ladakh, comprising Leh and Kargil districts, the turnout was 70 per cent. At least five persons were injured when the guards of a leader o f the ruling National Conference opened fire at Kandoora in Badgam district, which forms part of the Srinagar constituency. Stray incidents of clashes were reported from sensitive Srinagar localities.

M.S. Gill said that political parties ought to read the signals coming from the high and the low voter turnout. Each of the two major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I), has interpreted the turnout to mean an electoral victory for it . BJP general secretary K.N. Govindacharya said that his party expected to win more than 100 of the seats that went to the polls in the first phase. Govindacharya smugly declared that the BJP candidate in Bellary, Sushma Swaraj, would win by a margin of over one lakh votes against Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. BJP spokesperson Arun Jaitley viewed the huge voter turnout in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, States that have witnessed political realignments since the last elections, as a vote in favour of the BJP.

Congress(I) spokesperson Kapil Sibal, on the other hand, said that Sonia Gandhi would trounce the BJP candidate in Bellary by an "overwhelming" margin. He claimed that there was a "huge wave" in favour of the party and against the "khichri" rule of the B JP-led alliance.

The first phase was not without its aberrations: Election Commissioner G.V.G. Krishnamurthy found to his dismay that his name was missing in the voters' list. He cast his vote when his name was later discovered against his previous residential address. T his lapse raised questions about the effectiveness of the time-consuming exercise of electoral roll revision undertaken by the E.C.

SINCE M.S.Gill assumed office as CEC, he has been introducing the use of EVMs in a phased manner. The EVMs were tried on a limited scale in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections and then in the Assembly elections later that year. In the first phase of polling, vo ters of 21 constituencies, including the seven constituencies in Delhi, cast their votes through the EVMs.

The photo identity card for voters, introduced by the former CEC, T.N.Seshan, has proved of limited value. There were many instances in Delhi in which genuine voters carrying photo identity cards had to forgo their franchise, as their names did not find a place in the voters' list.

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