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India's Opposition Congress Party May Fare Better Than Expected - 2004-05-10

Polls have closed in India after the fifth and final round of voting in the nation's parliamentary elections.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the ballot six-months early to capitalize on a surge in popularity to keep his hold on parliament. But some opinion polls suggest that the opposition Congress Party may fare better than expected.

Voters in the Indian capital, New Delhi, withstood sweltering heat to cast their ballots - the last of day of voting in the world's largest democracy.

The heat has been blamed for keeping voter turn-out at around 55-percent throughout the three weeks of staggered voting, including in the capital, where many polling stations saw just a slow trickle of voters.

Dozens of parties are contesting the polls, but the election largely pits the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, against the opposition Congress Party headed by Sonia Gandhi, a member of India's most prominent political family.

The BJP has campaigned on recent economic successes resulting from its program to reform India's economy, making it more competitive on the world stage. The Congress Party charges the BJP has done little to alleviate poverty across India.

Some say the National Democratic Alliance, the coalition that includes the BJP, will not have the landslide victory many were expecting. The alliance needs 272 seats to control the 545-member parliament.

Hiranmay Karlekar, an editor with the Indian newspaper Pioneer, thinks the alliance might just make it.

?My own gut feeling is that it will scrape past the halfway margin by the skin of its teeth... But anything between 265-290, that is the bandwidth for the BJP in my calculation,? Mr. Karlekar said.

Across New Delhi, a city of 10 million, voters' priorities shifted with the neighborhood.

Some of India's minority Muslim voters say they have not felt safe since 2002, when anti-Muslim riots broke out in the state of Gujarat. At a polling station near India's largest mosque, this 20 year-old Muslim laid out his priorities for the government.

?Secularism for one, and poverty, and employment, and basic law and order, which was seen not being performed in Gujarat during the riots,? he said.

A businessman from the wealthy neighborhood of Jor Bagh says there is not enough focus on India's millions of poor.

?This is already a well-developed colony. What we require is the development of the slums. There is no development of the poor people there,? he added.

Elections in India are a massive undertaking - with hundreds of thousands of officials moving across the country throughout the three weeks of voting.

Final election results are expected Thursday.