Shimla: A record 74.62 percent of the 46 lakh voters in Himachal Pradesh on Sunday exercised their franchise in the Assembly election where ruling BJP and Congress are locked in a virtual straight contest.
    
After a slow start, polling for the 68-member Assembly picked up as the day progressed and the hill state witnessed a massive turnout.
    
As per the voting figures till 5 PM, 74.62 percent polling had been registered in the state and the percentage was expected to go up, election officials said here.
 
Election Commission Director General Akshay Raut said told reporters in Delhi that the polling was violence-free.
    
The polling figure may cross the previous best of 74.51 percent registered in the state in 2003 as people waited to cast their ballot in 200 polling stations even after 1700 hrs, the time of close of poll.
    
Deputy Election Commissioner Alok Shukla said the EC had taken several steps to ensure a higher voter turnout in the state by making use of multiple media sources.
    
He said since counting of votes would be held on December 20 after the Gujarat election, elaborate arrangements have been made to keep the EVMs under CCTV vigil and guarded by central paramilitary forces.
    
The electorate in Himachal Pradesh comprises 46.08 lakh voters, including 22.31 lakh women. 7,253 polling stations were set up, including in Hikkim in Lahaul and Spiti at a height of over 15,000 feet. In all, 459 candidates are in the fray, 34 of them being women.
    
The main contest is between ruling BJP and Congress which have put candidates in all the seats. Led by Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, incumbent BJP is hoping to script history in Himachal Pradesh by going the Punjab way, where the Akali Dal-BJP combine returned to power. The state has never repeated a government since 1977.
    
Congress leader and five-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh cast his ballot at his native place in Rampur town, some 120 km from here, while the Chief Minister exercised his franchise in Hamirpur.

In the run up to on Sunday's polling, issues like price rise and corruption seemed to have surpassed anti-incumbency factor.
    
BSP has fielded 66 candidates followed by Himachal Lokhit Party (36), TMC (25), SP (16), CPI-M (15), NCP and Swabhiman Party (12 each), CPI (7), Shiv Sena (4) and 105 Independents.
    
In the 2007 poll, BJP had won 41 as against Congress 23, while the independents and BSP had bagged 3 and one seats respectively.
    
Chief Electoral Officer Narinder Chauhan said polling was held simultaneously in all the constituencies, including three tribal constituencies after 19 years.
    
The exercise passed off peacefully barring minor incidents involving rival party workers in Chamba, Una and Palampur, he said.
    
Polling started on a dull note in the morning hours due to cold weather conditions but by 1600 hrs nearly 70 percent voters had cast their ballot. Chamba, Kullu, Una, Sirmaur, Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti recorded heavy polling.
    
Polling was 100 percent in Kaa polling station in Kinnaur where all 18 voters had cast their vote by noon.
    
Shimla constituency recorded the lowest polling of 49 percent and Shimla (Rural) and Kusumpti 60 percent and 57 percent respectively.
    
The turnout was above 75 percent in Kullu, Chamba, Mandi and Una districts and Shillai constituency in Simmer district.

Manali and Banjjar in Kullu district recorded 77 percent polling while it was 75 percent in other two constituencies of Kullu and Ani, according to preliminary figures.
    
In Chamba district Churah recorded 78 percent polling while Dalhousie, Chamba and Bhatiyyat seats saw 71, 65 and 74 percent polling. In Mandi district having ten constituencies, polling was above 73 percent except in Jognider Nagar while all five constituencies in Sirmaour recorded polling above 80 percent.
    
The average polling in Kangra district was around 68 percent with some constituencies in Nurpur sub-division recording above 70 percent polling. The tribal Lahaul and Spiti constituency with 22,344 votes recorded heavy polling, exceeding 77 percent.
    
The EC said in Delhi that Shimla, which had "serious urban apathy" towards voting, has also registered an increase in turnout.

Corruption in both BJP and Congress camps was a major election issue in the state this time, with the latter facing graver charges in the wake of scams such as coal block allocations, 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games by Cong-led UPA at the Centre.
    
Though corruption charges have flown thick and fast throughout the period of campaigning, the Congress has somehow managed to neutralise their effect by launching a counter off
ensive against Dhumal and his Cabinet colleagues.    

Virbhadra Singh has openly accused the CM of giving away chunks of prime land to private players at throwaway prices.
    
The much-hyped BJP offensive against Virbhadra Singh on corruption in the wake of a series of graft allegations against him got diluted after Congress launched a counter-attack against BJP in wake of allegations of "dubious" funding by companies of its President Nitin Gadkari.
    
In fact, by the end of canvassing, corruption had taken a rear seat with price rise emerging the strongest. The BJP leadership used LPG cap and diesel price issues to push the Congress to the wall by telling voters how their household budgets would go for a toss.
    
Dhumal tried to woo 22.31 lakh women voters by projecting free induction hotplates as his answer to Congress' LPG cap. The local Congress leaders too were pushed to make the Centre stall another LPG price hike at the last moment.
    
Though national and local issues would make an impact on the poll results, emergence of BJP rebels under the umbrella of Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP) has made the fight interesting at least in a dozen seats.

(Agencies)

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