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DateLine Sunday, 8 April 2007

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India's populous state begins voting in keen poll

India's most populous state went to the polls on Saturday, with millions set to vote in a keenly fought provincial election that is expected to give a hint about the political fortunes of the two major national parties.

The northern heartland state of Uttar Pradesh is home to about 170 million people, more than the combined populations of Russia and Australia, and 16 million are eligible to vote in the first of a seven-stage ballot spread over the next month. Two caste-based parties are leading the fight for power in one of India's least developed states.

The two regional parties - the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party - are running neck and neck according to pre-poll surveys. Neither is expected to win a clear majority in the 403-member state assembly.

They are expected to depend on the support of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress party, which heads the central government, to secure a majority, making the performance of the two national parties critical.

"This is the real battleground," said election analyst Yashwant Deshmukh. "The U.P. election will begin the countdown for the 2009 parliamentary polls."

"The entire top leadership of the country is campaigning in far-flung corners of the state which happens in no other state," he said.

Tens of thousands of armed federal and state police were deployed for the vote, as previous elections have witnessed violent clashes between supporters of rival parties and candidates, many of whom are accused of crimes. Election officials said 839 candidates were in the fray in 62 constituencies voting on Saturday.

Although the poll is being fought mainly on local issues and the performance of the ruling Samajwadi Party, it is also expected to reflect voter perceptions of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's central government, which is battling criticism over rising prices and economic reforms. It has also become a matter of prestige for India's famous Nehru-Gandhi political family, as an Uttar Pradesh constituency has long been its base. But the Congress party that the mily has long led has sunk to a historic low due to the onslaught of regional parties over the years. Most early voters were women or the elderly and few seemed optimistic that the election would make a difference.

"The situation here has been such that we have always been labouring hard and will continue to do so," said Mohammad Ayub Khan, 76, a leather businessman in Kanpur city.

"Politics is a corrupt business and nothing will change. But I have come to vote as it is my fundamental right," he said. Jalaluddin, a 47-year-old businessman who uses only one name, seemed to agree.

"All parties are the same," he said after casting his ballot in Kanpur. "I have voted hoping for change. If my candidate does not perform I will not vote for him again."

The electronic ballots are due to be counted on May 11 and results expected the same day.

 

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