Congress ahead in Indian polls

MUMBAI: India's ruling Congress party had a comfortable lead Thursday in the vote count from three state elections seen as the first major test of its national leadership, official figures showed.

In the key state of Maharashtra -- home to India's financial capital Mumbai -- the Congress and its ally were ahead in 145 out of 288 seats which, if sustained, would allow the grouping to form a government without outside help.

An alliance of the main opposition, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the hardline Hindu party Shiv Sena, was leading in 90 seats, according to the figures provided by the Election Commission.

The Maharashtra state chief minister and Congress leader Ashok Chavan said they were confident that the party and its allies would win, which would mark its third straight five-year term.

Congress also enjoyed strong leads in votes counted in the northern state of Haryana and the remote northeastern Arunachal Pradesh where campaigning focused on relief for drought-hit areas after a poor monsoon season.

Electricity shortages, unemployment and high food prices were also key issues as the Congress power trio of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, party president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi toured the states ahead of voting.

Analysts say outright wins in all three states would be seen as a major vote of confidence in the Congress-led coalition following its resounding general election victory in May.

The Congress alliance has ruled for 10 years in Maharashtra, but the outgoing administration had only 140 seats and required the backing of several independent state legislators.