"Also, 75 micro observers have been appointed by the election commission besides six returning officers to supervise the poll process."
By Sheikh Qayoom

Udhampur, April 15 - Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad is facing his career's biggest challenge in the Udhampur constituency, which votes Thursday, as this is the first Lok Sabha election he is fighting from his home state.

There are 13 candidates in this Lok Sabha constituency, spread over 17 assembly segments in six districts, although the main contest is going to be triangular here.

Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress is pitched against Jitender Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party - and Arshid Malik of the regional Peoples Democratic Party -.

Azad belongs to Bhellessa village of Kishtwar district from where he started his political career 40 years ago as a Congress activist and later as the district president of the party.

He faces the biggest challenge of his political career in Udhampur. This is the first Lok Sabha election he is fighting from his home state.

He fought his first Lok Sabha election from Washim in Maharashtra in 1980.

Three districts of Kishtwar, Ramban and Doda, known together as the Chenab Valley region, are believed to be Azad's political stronghold.

The other three districts in the constituency are Udhampur, Reasi and Kathua.

There are 1.41 million voters, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, in this Lok Sabha constituency.

The Muslims include the economically less privileged Paharis and the ethnically Valley-centric, Kashmiri speaking Muslims in Kishtwar, Ramban and Doda districts.

The Reasi, Kathua and Udhampur districts have predominantly Hindu voters whose political priorities have been deeply influenced by developments at the national level in the past.

This is in sharp contrast to the political affinities of people in the Chenab Valley districts where voters have looked at political developments in the Valley plus the geographical aloofness and difficulties of their own region to determine who they should vote to power.

These complexities have made the contest triangular among the Congress, the BJP and the regional PDP for this Lok Sabha seat.

Azad of course is a political heavyweight while his main challenger, Jitender Singh of the BJP, the national spokesperson of his party, depends largely on anti-incumbency, price rise, unemployment, changing political winds and other factors to generate voter support.

The constituency also stands polarized between Hindus and Muslims because of the communal riots in Kishtwar town last year.

As many as 2,051 polling stations are being set up in the constituency which include 225 in Kishtwar, 257 in Doda, 205 in Ramban, 373 in Reasi, 389 in Udhampur and 602 in Kathua.

Of these, 93 percent polling stations have been declared as hyper-sensitive and sensitive because of security reasons.

Webcasting will be done on the day of voting from 68 polling stations. Voting process at these polling stations would be viewed live by election commission officials, contesting candidates and those interested in seeing the process through the election commission's site.

About 7,000 poll staff, 45 companies of central armed forces, 40 companies of state armed police and all the state police personnel posted in the six districts have been kept at the disposal of the state's chief electoral officer to ensure free and fair poll in the constituency.

Also, 75 micro observers have been appointed by the election commission besides six returning officers to supervise the poll process.

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