India has begun a crucial round of state elections that are being seen as a test of the popularity of the ruling Congress Party. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the regional polls will set the stage for general elections due next year.  

Security was tight as voters in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh cast ballots Friday to choose a new state government. Scattered violence blamed on Maoist rebels marred the vote in some areas.

The Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, which rules the state, hopes to retain power. But the Congress Party, which heads the governing national coalition, is putting up a tough fight.

Chattisgarh is the first of six states that will choose new regional governments over the next six weeks. These are Madhya Pradesh, the capital Delhi, Rajasthan, Mizoram, and Jammu and Kashmir. The Congress Party and its main rival, the BJP, are the main contenders in most of the states.

Political analyst, Ajoy Bose, says the elections are being seen as a mini referendum ahead of national polls scheduled to be held by next May.    

"These elections are widely seen as semifinals. Because they are on the eve, just a few months away from the parliamentary polls, they are seen as a kind of rehearsal, and they would give an indication of who would win," said Bose.

The elections are being held against a backdrop of rising prices, a slowing economy, and security concerns raised by bomb blasts that have hit several major Indian cities in recent months.

Ajoy Bose says these concerns could hurt the ruling Congress Party.

"There was widespread inflation, prices are nowhere near falling, and there is the wider economic crisis, so there is a general sense of gloom. And then of course there is a huge concern over the law and order situation which has been getting from bad to worse," said Bose.

Some political analysts say if the Congress Party performs well, it may call early elections.

It will also be easier for the party that is on a winning streak to cement crucial alliances with regional parties ahead of the general elections. In recent elections, neither the Congress Party nor the BJP has won an outright majority, and have needed to put together a coalition. 

Out of all the state polls, the most closely watched election will be that in Indian Kashmir, which was wracked by anti-India protests led by Muslim separatist leaders in the summer. The separatist leaders have called on voters to boycott the polls, and political observers say turnout may be low. The election will be held over several weeks due to security concerns.