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Gujarat Election Peaceful, Amid High Voter Turnout - 2002-12-12

Polls have closed in India's Gujarat state, which was swept by religious violence earlier this year. Voting in the state assembly elections was mostly peaceful, and turnout was high. Official results are not expected before Sunday, but an exit poll (Zee TV) showed the ruling BJP party ahead.

Authorities say nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Gujarat's 30 million eligible voters cast ballots in an election held amid heavy security.

Deputy Election Commissioner AN Jha said voting proceeded smoothly, except for sporadic incidents in which polls were disrupted.

"By and large it was a peaceful poll, and there were no major incidents," he said.

It's a high stake election for India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, which faced the main opposition Congress party.

Independent political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan, says the election is crucial, because it could revive the political fortunes of the BJP, which lost ground in several state elections held earlier this year.

"They are crucial because this has been a state, which for the better part of the last decade, has been a bastion of the ruling BJP," he said. "It's economically a very important part of India, and it's the only major state where the BJP has won two successive elections, and it is looking to repeat that. "

BJP leader and Chief Minister Narendra Modi has led a high-profile, nationalist campaign to retain control of Gujarat, running on a tough law-and-order platform.

The elections are being held several months after nearly 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - died in clashes, sparked by the killing of 58 Hindu activists in a train fire allegedly started by a Muslim mob.

The opposition Congress party has accused Mr. Modi of dividing Gujarat's population along religious lines to sway voters. Congress party leaders say governance and development are the main issues before voters in one of India's most industrialized states.

Political analysts say the polls will serve as a referendum on what they call Mr. Modi's Hindu nationalist policies.

Both the Congress and the BJP parties say they are confident of victory.