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Round One: Biggies put on gloves

Officials leave for a polling booth carrying electronic voting machines in Ganjam. Picture by Gopal Krishna Reddy

Bhubaneswar, April 9: Stakes are high for the three major parties, including the ruling BJD, as the state gears up for polling in 10 Lok Sabha and 70 Assembly constituencies in west and south Odisha in the first round of the two-phase elections tomorrow.

Among the big guns in the Lok Sabha fray in the first round are two former Congress chief ministers — Giridhar Gamang and Hemanand Biswal — who are contesting from Koraput and Sundargarh respectively.

Former Union ministers Jual Oram (BJP) and Bhakta Charan Das (Congress) are also trying their luck from Sundargarh and Kalahandi.

While the presence of hockey star and former India captain Dilip Tirkey (BJD) has made the contest in Sundargarh truly triangular, cine star-turned-politician Siddhant Mohapatra finds pitted against formidable opponents — Ramchandra Panda (BJP) and Chandra Shekhar Sahu (Congress) — for the prestigious Berhampur Lok Sabha seat.

In Balangir, which is reckoned among the largest Lok Sabha constituencies of the country, the focus is on the local royal family with BJD’s Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo once again locking horns with his sister-in-law Sangeeta Kumari Singh Deo, who has won the seat thrice in the past.

With the royals going against each other all guns blazing, Congress candidate Sarat Patnaik is also fancying his chances in Balangir.

A total of 1.36 crore voters, including 66.62 lakh women, are expected to exercise their franchise tomorrow to decide the fate of 98 Lok Sabha and 673 Assembly candidates.

However, the focus in the first phase would be on Hinjili, the constituency of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, where the issue, more than anything else, is the margin of his victory. While in Gunpur in Koraput district, former chief minister Giridhar Gamang’s wife, Hema, is trying her luck on a BJD ticket much to the embarrassment of her husband, the spotlight in the steel city of Rourkela is on former Union minister Dilip Ray. He is contesting the seat after a gap of nearly 20 years.

Having parted ways with the BJD in 2002, he in the fray on the lotus symbol this time but things look far from rosy as he is facing a spirited challenge from ruling party veteran Sarada Nayak, who is being backed to the hilt by Naveen.

The polling will mark the culmination of a high voltage and star-studded campaign that saw BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi addressing three rallies, including one at Rourkela, where the turnout was the most impressive. Naveen also made a whirlwind tour of the key constituencies foregrounding the issues of development and the Centre’s alleged neglect of his state.

The Congress, on the other hand, targeted him, exclusively holding him responsible for the alleged proliferation of scams in the state, the biggest of these being the multi-crore mining scam. The main Opposition party also sought to debunk the BJD government’s claims on making Re 1 a kilo rice available to more than 60 lakh BPL beneficiaries across the state.

Security has been beefed up throughout west and south Odisha as more than 50 of the 70 Assembly segments going to the polls tomorrow are located in the Maoist-affected areas.

The Election Commission has engaged 156 companies of Central Para Military Force, apart from 27,000 personnel of the state police to ensure free and fair elections.

Three helicopters also being pressed into service in the troubled zone.