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India Prepares for Elections Starting April 20 - 2004-02-29


Indian voters will elect a new parliament in four stages starting April 20.

India's independent election commission will hold voting for national polls on four days: April 20 and 26, and May 5 and 10. The votes will be counted on May 13.

Voting in India is staggered to allow paramilitary soldiers and election officials to move around the country to provide polling security - the world's largest electoral exercise. Nearly 650 million people out of India's billion-plus population will be eligible to vote.

The polls will pit the Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the current ruling coalition, against the opposition Congress Party.

The BJP dissolved parliament in early February, paving the way for elections to be held nearly six months ahead of schedule. The party is hoping to benefit from what it calls a "feel-good factor" in the country due to a booming economy and recent peace moves with Pakistan.

A string of recent successes in state elections has also encouraged the party to hold the polls early.

India's chief election commissioner, T.S. Krishnamurthy, is calling the upcoming election "historic and unique," because electronic voting machines will be used nationwide for the first time.

"We are going to have all-electronic election in this country. These electronic voting machines are proposed to be used from the Himalayas to Kanya Kumari," he said, referring to India's southernmost tip.

India's political parties have already kicked off their election campaigns in most parts of the country.

Mr. Krishnamurthy is appealing to the parties to shun the violence the usually marks Indian election campaigns.

"I would appeal to them [political parties] to realize that in the long run good governance and responsibility to the voters alone will decide the fate of the candidates," said Mr. Krishnamurthy. "So I would appeal to them to take this aspect seriously and avoid unnecessary violence and criminal activities."

Polls for four state governments - in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Sikkim - will be held simultaneously with the general election.

India's lower house of parliament has 545 members, who are directly elected for a five-year term.