New Delhi: All eyes are set on Monday for the crucial Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election verdict as counting of votes begins in the morning amid tight security.
Even though most exit polls favoured the BJP in both states, the Congress is confident of ending the BJP’s 22-year rule in Gujarat and breaking the trend in Congress-ruled Himachal Pradesh where each Assembly election sees the Opposition coming to power.
Poll pundits feel that the verdict will also set the tone for the big electoral battle of 2019 as these Assembly elections are seen as a test between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic and new Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.
Mr Gandhi, who assumed charge as Congress president on Saturday, campaigned for almost two months in Gujarat and gave the BJP its toughest fight in Mr Modi’s home state.
Counting of votes for 182 Assembly seats in Gujarat and 68 seats in Himachal will begin at 8 am and clear trends are likely to emerge by noon. These are the first Assembly elections in both states with 100 per cent VVPAT or papertrail coverage. VVPAT machines from one polling booth in each of the constituencies will be tallied with EVM results. On Sunday, more than 70 per cent voter turnout was recorded in the re-polling held at six polling booths in four Assembly constituencies of Gujarat, said officials.
In Gujarat, counting of votes will be held at 37 centres across the state’s 33 districts amid tight security. The poll campaign saw the BJP focus on issues like Mr Gandhi’s temple visits, the alleged Pakistani interference in the polls and suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s controversial remarks against the PM. The Congress questioned the ruling party’s development model as Mr Gandhi attacked Mr Modi and the BJP for “not talking about the future of Gujarat” and skipping key problems faced by people.
On the eve of the counting, Congress general secretary in charge of Gujarat Ashok Gehlot said: “We are confident of victory in Gujarat. The manner in which Rahul Gandhi spearheaded the campaign and used issue-based politics, he put the BJP on the mat forcing them to resort to non-issues for public sympathy.”
He added that the BJP had no answers to Mr Gandhi’s questions and was “forced to rake up Gujarati pride”.
Incumbent chief minister Vijay Rupani also sounded confident of the BJP retaining power for the sixth time. The election saw the Congress stitching a broad social coalition with prominent Patidar, OBC, and dalit leaders — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jigesh Mevani — in its bid to unseat the BJP after over two decades. Interestingly, Mr Patel led a long agitation of his influential community for reservation, while Mr Thakor led a counter-protest against inclusion of Patidars in the OBC reservation list. Mr Mevani raised his voice against dalit atrocities. A day before the verdict, Mr Patel also accused the BJP of trying to use engineers to hack into the EVMs.
The two main rival parties also tried to counter each other on social media, as the Congress and its supporters launched the campaign “Vikas Gando Thayo Che” (development has gone crazy), while the BJP launched a counter drive of “I am development, I am Gujarat”. An average 68.41 per cent polling was recorded in the two-phase Assembly elections in Gujarat.
The total voter turnout this time saw a dip of 2.91 per cent, as compared to the 2012 polls when 71.32 per cent polling was registered. In terms of numbers, of the total 4.35 crore registered voters, 2.97 crore exercised their right to franchise in the elections held on December 9 and 14.
In Himachal Pradesh, where counting of votes will take place at 42 centres, chief minister Virbhadra Singh of the Congress sounded confident that his party will achieve the target of “Mission Repeat” and the “tall claims made by the BJP would be proved wrong”. The hill state recorded a record 75.28 per cent turnout in the November 9 election.
In the repolling in Gujarat on Sunday, almost all the six polling booths recorded more than 70 per cent turnout. Booth number 27 in Viramgam recorded an 83 per cent turnout, said officials.
The EC had ordered repolling after the second phase of voting, covering 93 seats, on December 14. However, the poll panel did not specify the reason for fresh polling at these six booths.
The poll panel had directed that the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips of 10 booths in seven constituencies be taken into consideration during Monday’s counting of votes as the presiding officers of these booths had failed to wipe out the votes cast during the mock poll from the control units.
In Surat, the wi-fi service at a college was suspended after the Congress candidate from Kamrej Assembly seat complained of possible hacking and tampering with the EVMs, used in the recently held Assembly polls, kept on its campus.
Following a complaint by Congress nominee Ashok Jariwala, the wi-fi service was suspended on the campus of Gandhi Engineering College, situated in the Athwa Lines area.
“We detected that a wi-fi network was available near the strongroom (in the college), after which we asked the collector to take action,” Mr Jariwala said.