Phase-I rural polls pass off peacefully

Jorhat, Jan. 30: It was not about roads or empowerment or corruption. The voters, who turned out in huge numbers at a polling booth of No. 42 Pub Horusorai gaon panchayat under Dhekorgorah block in Jorhat district, had only one thing on their minds today ' the right to exercise their franchise to ensure speedy development.

It is every citizen's right to vote ' this was the common refrain at the polling station, reflecting the unprecedented enthusiasm and expectations that dominated the first of the three-phase panchayat elections held in nine districts of the state.

State election commissioner Biren Dutta said he was "very happy" and pegged the "unexpected" and "peaceful" turnout between 65 to 70 per cent till 7.30pm.

That Ronti Dutta did not know the name of No. 42 Pub Horusorai gaon panchayat or the names of all the ward members or panchayat president seeking to be elected did not faze her. "I am better than the candidates who do not know the names of the President, Prime Minister or the national anthem," she said.

The desire for proper utilisation of development funds and the right people benefiting from government schemes seemed to be uppermost on the minds of voters.

"Whether it is the AGP or the Congress, jie Lankale jai hiae Ravan ho (whoever goes to Lanka becomes Ravan)," said Raju Gayan (name changed) who cast his vote at No 44 Horusorai gaon panchayat, an AGP stronghold.

At No 43 Horusorai gaon panchayat, Prabhat Borthakur was voting because in the last panchayat election there had been a lot of "kheli meli (anomalies)". "This time I'm going to vote for the right candidate, whichever party he may belong to," he said.

Among the voters were Khageswar Saikia, a farmer who has received benefits from the government of the day, and Jitu Bora, a youth sporting a BJP cap who has got nothing and wants to right many things.

At No. 31 Madhya Charigaon gaon panchayat in northeast Jorhat, farmer Debomoni Dutta was all awareness and complained to the presiding officer against the presence of the Congress candidate on the polling booth premises. He said he would work against corrupt practices of whoever comes to power.

The state election commissioner told The Telegraph this evening that the polls were peaceful. "If only five polling stations out of 8,269 spread over nine districts have reported hitches, we can safely conclude that the polls were peaceful. Given the high-pitch campaign, I am happy with the way things have panned out in the first phase. Hope it will remain the same in the remaining two phases," he said.

Sources said the state election commission may go for repolling in five polling stations ' two in Golaghat and one each in Tinsukia, Nagaon and Dhemaji over error in ballot papers.

Sources said there was some ballot-related fracas at a polling station in Dhemaji and the election commission needs to take extra care so that it's not repeated in the remaining two phases.

After the polling was over, around 3.30pm, police had to resort to blank firing at Sinatoli LP School under Jengraimukh police station in Majuli after two parties, one backing an Independent and the other the Congress, gheraoed the school, the No. 6 polling centre of Ratanpur gaon panchayat. Deputy commissioner R.C. Jain said the police had to take the step as the supporters wanted to snatch the ballot boxes and were not allowing polling officials to remove the boxes from the place. No one was injured in the firing, he added. The crowd dispersed after the firing.

A source said at one centre in Majuli, 40 people who did not find their names on the list staged a sit-in. At No. 1 ward people found their names on the No. 4 ward list.

Heavy and peaceful polling was also witnessed in Nagaon district. Long queues of voters were seen in almost all the polling stations since morning.

Deputy commissioner P. Ashok Babu said there was 60 per cent polling and it passed off peacefully because of the measures taken by the local administration.

AGP chief Prafulla Kumar Mahanta did not turn up to vote but Congress minister Rakibul Hussain cast his vote, sources said. Nagaon legislator Durlav Chamua of the Congress exercised his franchise at Jalahgaon Primary School.

Condemning the violence reported during the day, the AGP accused the Congress-led government of being behind the incidents to influence voters.

AGP publicity secretary Manoj Saikia alleged that Congress workers distributed liquor, money and blankets to influence voters in Lakhimpur, Golaghat, Jorhat, Duliajan and Nagaon, among others.

The Congress expressed its happiness over the huge turnout and hopes to win more than the 70 per cent seats it had won last time.

PCC president Bhubaneswar Kalita hit out at the AGP, the BJP and the AIUDF for describing the polls as "decentralisation of corruption" by the ruling Congress. "By levelling such allegations, these parties are only insulting the rural people. This shows their lack of faith in the democratic exercise which has brought a sea change in the rural areas," he said.

Kalita said the base of regional parties like the AGP was shrinking and flayed AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal for using provocative language during his poll campaign.

"This is highly condemnable. His provocative statements could result in untoward incidents. I appeal to the people not to get provoked," the PCC chief said.

He said Congress members contesting as Independents had been expelled for six years. He, however, could not furnish the numbers.

Dissidents and the AIUDF (in lower Assam and Barak Valley) have emerged as the main threat to the Congress in the polls, insiders said.

Counting of votes will take place on February 14 and 15.

Additional reporting by Sarat Sarma and Pranab Kumar Das

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