Key races at stake in fourth phase of election

Voters in 85 constituencies across seven states as well as in the Indian capital of Delhi cast their ballots in the fourth phase of India’s mammoth five-stage general elections Thursday as the contest between the two main parties tightens.


AFP - India kicked off the penultimate round of its marathon general election on Thursday, with the two main parties going head to head in a series of key races that could swing the final outcome.

And with the finish line now in sight and no clear winner expected, attention has already turned to the political horse-trading to come when parties scrabble for coalition partners to govern India's 1.1 billion people.

Rahul Gandhi, heir to India's most powerful political dynasty and the ruling Congress party's star campaigner, set the tone on Tuesday when he extended an olive branch to his party's estranged communist partners.

"The field is open to post-poll alliances," Gandhi, 38, told a press conference at which he stressed common ground with the Left on income distribution, health and education.

Analysts say Congress will struggle to stitch together a government without the communists, who withdrew their support from the ruling coalition last year to protest the signing of a nuclear pact with the United States.

Thursday's fourth round of voting encompasses the capital New Delhi and the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Haryana, as well as five other states.

In the 2004 general elections, Congress won six of the seven seats up for grabs in Delhi, as well as nine of Haryana's 10 seats. Its main rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), took 21 of the 25 seats in Rajasthan.

A significant swing in any of these races could have a major impact with many observers predicting that just a handful of seats could separate the two parties once all the votes are counted.

India's 714 million registered voters will decide a total of 543 parliamentary seats in what is touted as the largest democratic exercise in the world.

The five-stage election -- staggered for reasons of logistics and security -- began on April 16 and ends on May 13, with the final results expected three days later.

Neither the Congress-led alliance nor the bloc headed by the BJP is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority.

The inevitable post-poll rush for more allies is expected to witness the emergence of a shaky, vulnerable coalition at a time when the country needs a strong government at the helm.

The new administration faces a sharp economic downturn after successive years of growth, as well as numerous foreign policy challenges that include the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Pakistan.

Thursday's vote also brings in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley -- the cradle of the Kashmiri separatist movement. The armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir has claimed 47,000 lives since 1989.

A two-day strike organised by separatist groups to back their call for an election boycott completely shut down the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar on Wednesday.

A number of prominent separatist leaders, who argue that participating in the election legitimises Indian rule, have been placed under house arrest, and thousands of army soldiers and paramilitary personnel have been deployed in the city.

Kashmir's new chief minister, Omar Abdullah, who was elected in December, said his only responsibility was to ensure people had the opportunity to cast their ballots.

"As long as I can provide an environment where there is little or no violence, and where people are free to come out and choose to vote or not to vote, that is as much as can be expected from me," Abdullah told AFP.

"It's not my job to force people to come out and vote," he said.

But many Muslim voters said they would not be coming out whatever the level of security.

"None of us are going to vote," said Mehak Fayaz, 21, one of a group of students studying at Kashmir University in Srinagar.

"New Delhi has been ruling us for years. There has been no difference in the curfews, custodial deaths, the army's human rights violations," Fayaz said.

Kashmir is divided into India and Pakistan-controlled sections and claimed in whole by the two South Asian rivals, who have fought two wars over the region.

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