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Violence Mars First Day of India's Parliamentary Elections - 2004-04-20

Polls have opened in the world's largest democracy, India, in the first of five voting days in its national parliamentary election. It is a massive undertaking, with more than 670 million people expected to vote. Analysts say the vote is likely to give Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, five more years in power.

Voting began Tuesday in 13 of India's 29 states and three territories - including the states of Kashmir and Gujarat, which both have seen sectarian violence in the past.

Dozens of parties are vying for the 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. But the election is largely a contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the opposition Congress Party, headed by Sonia Gandhi.

India is the world's largest democracy, and voting is held in five phases across the country, ending May 10. The results are expected on May 13. The massive undertaking involves 70,000 polling stations, with millions of security personnel to prevent election violence.

In Kashmir, where Islamic militants have been fighting to end India's rule over part of the region, there have been reports of several small election-related attacks.

In Gujarat, where riots two years ago claimed more than 1,000 lives - most of them Muslims - there are fears of new violence during the voting.

A woman says because of the elections, she is sending her daughters away. She says the elderly have already been sent away, and now they are moving the girls, because they will not be safe here.

But the BJP spokesman in Gujarat, Jay Narayan Vyas, dismisses those fears, pointing out that Muslim voters turned out in high numbers in local elections held shortly after the riots in 2002.

"So if that time they could register higher voting, and if that time they didn't have any problem, I think this is not going to happen. They will not have any problem as far as voting is concerned," he said.

Prime Minister Vajpayee called the election six months early, to take advantage of a surge in popularity because of improved relations with neighboring Pakistan, and India's surging economy.

The Congress Party, which held power for nearly four decades following independence in 1947, says the BJP is corrupt and does little for India's millions of poor.

Analysts say despite BJP's popularity, it is unlikely to win control of Parliament, so Mr. Vajpayee will have to form another coalition government.

Election Commission officials say while there may be minor disturbances, they expect voting to largely proceed peacefully.