Mass voting as critical Bihar battle under way (Fourth Lead)

Patna, Oct 12 (IANS) Tens of thousands voted or stood in serpentine queues at polling booths on Monday in the first round of assembly election in Bihar — the country’s biggest popularity test since the BJP was routed in Delhi in February.

Barring stray incidents of violence including the shooting of a LJP candidate who escaped unhurt, the mammoth exercise that began at 7 a.m. was largely peaceful across 49 seats in 10 districts, officials said.

By noon, around 32 percent of the about 13.5 million voters in the first of the five-phase balloting had voted to pick 49 legislators from among 583 candidates.

“We expect the polling figures to go up,” Additional Chief Electoral Officer R. Lakshaman told IANS. He said polling was slow to begin with but picked up later.

According to him, women were voting in large numbers.

Maoists had called for a boycott of the election but it was clear the message had been ignored.

Unidentified men fired at LJP candidate Vijay Kumar Singh in Jamui constituency but he escaped unhurt. Police arrested one of the criminals involved in the attack.

“There are reports of some violence in Banka, Jamui and Bhagalpur districts. Supporters of rival parties attacked each other in Jamui and clashed in Banka,” a senior police official said.

The staggered Bihar election, which will end on November 5, is the biggest popularity test in the country since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) worsted the BJP in the Delhi assembly election in February.

The BJP-led NDA alliance, also including three other parties including the LJP, is trying to dislodge the ruling Janata Dal-United (JD-U), which has the RJD and the Congress as its allies.

Some voters turned up at polling booths even before they opened at 7 a.m.

Voters in most polling booths said they would vote for Bihar’s development.

“It is the only agenda that has attracted me,” said Suman Kumar, a voter in Bhagalpur district.

Another voter, Giridhari Yadav in Khagaria, said he will vote for the Grand Alliance of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

“Why should I vote for the BJP when we have tested Nitish Kumar? He has constructed roads, provided electricity, and set up schools and hospitals in rural areas,” he said.

Bihar police chief P.K. Thakur told the media here that polling was peaceful, barring minor clashes.

Samastipur, Begusarai, Khagaria, Bhagalpur, Banka, Munger, Lakhisarai, Sheikhpura, Nawada and Jamui districts are voting in the first phase.

The second round of polling for the 243-seat assembly will be held on October 16. The vote count will take place on November 8.

Poverty-stricken Jamui, Banka and Bhagalpur are among the 10 districts which are known for high rates of migration outside the state in search of livelihood.

Officials said that voters in over a dozen villages in Samastipur, Bhagalpur, Jamui and Banka boycotted the polls and shouted slogans against what they said was lack of development.

In areas of Maoist influence, the voting will end at 3 p.m.

Some 1.20 lakh security officials have been deployed in the 13,212 polling booths, officials said.

The Election Commission is also webcasting polling from 561 booths.

The heavyweights in the fray on Monday include state LJP president Pashupati Kumar Paras, BJP ally HAM state president Shakuni Choudhary and Congress leader and former Speaker Sadanand Singh.

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