Two-thirds vote in Himachal Pradesh



 Almost 66 percent of the 4.8 million electors exercised their franchise in Himachal Pradesh where balloting for the four Lok Sabha seats was held peacefully Wednesday.

The state had polled 58.43 percent in the 2009 polls while it was 59.71 percent in 2004.

Other than minor initial hiccups in the operation of the electronic voting machines in at least 10 polling booths across the state, voting continued at a brisk pace.

The bypoll for the Sujanpur assembly constituency was also held simultaneously.

All eyes are now on two "prestige" seats -- Mandi and Hamirpur -- that are witnessing a battle of supremacy between arch rivals Virbhadra Singh of the Congress and Prem Kumar Dhumal of the BJP. Development and corruption issues have been pushed to the background as personal attacks dominate.

Virbhadra Singh's wife Pratibha Singh is again in the fray in Mandi while Dhumal's son Anurag Thakur is re-contesting from Hamirpur, a BJP bastion.

Both are two-time MPs, but Thakur, who is also president of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association, is trying for a "hat-trick".

Other prominent candidates are BJP's three-time MP Shanta Kumar, 79, who had announced his retirement from politics two years ago, and the party's sitting MP Virender Kashyap, 63, who was booked in March on a corruption charge. They are candidates from Kangra and Shimla respectively.

BJP candidate Ram Swaroop Sharma from Mandi and Rohru legislator Mohan Lal Bragta from Shimla are the first timers.

Over 23,000 policemen and paramilitary troopers were stationed across the state to ensure peaceful polling, said Director General of Police Sanjay Kumar.

As many as 38 candidates are in the fray.

"The voter turnout was 41 percent by 1 p.m.," state Chief Electoral Officer Narinder Chauhan told IANS here.

Virbhadra Singh, Dhumal and union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma were among the early voters.

The state's oldest voter, 97-year-old Shyam Saran Negi, and his wife Hira Mani, 87, also exercised their franchise in a picturesque hamlet in Kinnaur district.

According to election officials, a total of 215 of the 333 voters exercised their franchise by 5 p.m. at Hikkam in Lahaul-Spiti, one of the country's highest polling stations located at an altitude of 14,400 feet.

The Hikkam polling station caters to three villages -- Komik, Langche and Hikkam -- where night temperature still hovers below the freezing level. In 2009, it had 321 voters.

Low temperatures in the higher regions of the Himalayan slopes failed to dampen the spirit of the voters.

"Heavy turnout was recorded in two of the three tribal segments of the Mandi parliamentary constituency as compared to other areas," state election department spokesperson Neeraj Sharma told IANS.

Kinnaur district recorded 66.63 percent, while Bharmour in Chamba district saw 58 percent polling by 5 p.m., he said.

The Kaa polling station in Kinnaur district has only 17 voters -- the lowest in the state. By 5 p.m., 12 voters cast their votes. - IANS