(AFP) – May 9, 2008
BANGALORE, India (AFP) — The southern Indian state of Karnataka went to the polls amid heavy security Saturday in a crucial election testing the ruling Congress party's popularity amid surging food prices.
Home to 60 million people, it is the first of a raft of states to choose governments ahead of national parliamentary elections due before May 2009.
An estimated 17.2 million people are eligible to take part in Saturday's first-phase vote -- which also covers Bangalore, the Karnataka capital and India's "Silicon Valley" -- to choose 89 state lawmakers.
The remaining seats in the 224-member assembly will be filled May 16 and 22 in an election the Congress is hoping to win on its promise to rein in prices, provide a stable government and refurbish the state's shabby infrastructure.
About 55,000 paramilitary troops, home guard volunteers and police fanned out across the state to secure polling stations, which opened at 7:00 am (0130 GMT) and will close at 5:00 pm, Karnataka police chief R. Sreekumar said.
About 100,000 officials have been deputed at the 18,500 voting booths, said the state election commission, which is on alert to ensure a fair vote.
In Bangalore, which includes 28 state assembly seats, the police arrested some 1,000 people with a criminal record and seized cash and liquor stored for distribution to voters, said city police commissioner N. Achutha Rao.
Those who impersonate voters, "living, dead or fictitious," will be punishable with a year's jail, state election commissioner M.N. Vidyashankar warned.
The significance of the Karnataka election goes beyond the state, part of a prosperous region of more than 200 million people that has led India's charge to annual economic growth of nine percent.
Analysts and opposition politicians say the Congress, led by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, may be tempted to bring forward the national vote if the party gains an early political advantage by seizing power in Karnataka.
Its biggest challenge in the state comes from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition group, which is making its first bid to take power on its own in a southern Indian state.
"If the Congress were to do well in Karnataka, it would be one of the factors compelling early general elections," said political analyst Sandeep Shastri.
"How the Congress fares in other BJP-ruled states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will be another key factor," Shastri added.
The Karnataka election comes at a time when the Congress-led federal coalition government is battling to rein in inflation that has climbed to a four-year high of 7.61 percent, fuelled by rising food and energy costs.
"Congress makes us pay more," said a newspaper advertisement taken out by the BJP in Karnataka. "Show them the door."
The Congress-led government has urged "patience and faith" in its ability to reduce prices, having banned futures trading in basic foods and the export of staples such as rice and lentils.
"I am satisfied and I am confident in the coming months we will tame inflation," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said during a pre-election visit to Karnataka.
Karnataka elected a hung assembly in 2004 that led to 40 months of political instability under short-lived coalitions. The BJP governed Karnataka for barely a week in November before partner party Janata Dal (Secular) forced an early ballot by withdrawing support.
"Only Congress can provide (the) stable governance this state badly needs," Singh said Thursday.
Both the Congress and the BJP have appealed to the electorate for a decisive vote in their favour, although the Janata Dal remains a significant force.
They also have to contend with charismatic low-caste leader Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which rules India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and is contesting all Karnataka seats as it seeks a southern beachhead.
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