Indian polls on final run

NEW DELHI: India's marathon elections entered the home straight Thursday, with millions voting in a fourth round of polling that saw the two main parties going head to head in a number of key swing states.

The penultimate phase of the five-stage election also brought in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley -- the cradle of the Kashmiri separatist movement where polls have long been snubbed as symbols of Indian rule.

A separatist boycott call, coupled with suffocating security meant early turnout in the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar was almost non-existent, with the few voters far outnumbered by the thousands of soldiers and police on duty.

"We opened 45 minutes ago and haven't seen a single voter," said Showkat Ahmed, a poll observer at a school with three polling booths.

Thursday's voting encompassed the capital New Delhi and the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Haryana, as well as five other states.

In the 2004 general elections, Congress won six of the seven seats up for grabs in Delhi, as well as nine of Haryana's 10 seats. Its main rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), took 21 of the 25 seats in Rajasthan.

A significant swing in any of these races could have a major impact, with many observers predicting that just a handful of seats could separate the two parties once all the votes are counted.

India's 714 million registered voters will decide a total of 543 parliamentary seats in what is touted as the largest democratic exercise in the world.

The election -- staggered for reasons of logistics and security -- began on April 16 and ends on May 13. Final results are expected three days later.

With the finish line now in sight and no clear winner expected, attention has already turned to the political horse-trading to come when parties scrabble for coalition partners to govern India's 1.1 billion people.

Rahul Gandhi, heir to India's most powerful political dynasty and the ruling Congress party's star campaigner, set the tone on Tuesday when he extended an olive branch to his party's estranged communist partners.

Analysts say Congress will struggle to stitch together a government without the communists, who withdrew their support from the ruling coalition last year to protest against the signing of a nuclear pact with the United States.

Neither the Congress-led alliance nor the bloc headed by the BJP is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority.

The inevitable post-poll rush for more allies is expected to witness the emergence of a shaky, vulnerable coalition.

The new administration faces a sharp economic downturn after successive years of growth, as well as numerous foreign policy challenges that include the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Pakistan.

In Srinagar, armoured personnel carriers and riot police were posted at key intersections to prevent any repeat of violent anti-poll protests that had rocked the city in recent days.

A number of prominent separatist leaders who helped organise the demonstrations were under house arrest.

Kashmiri Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said his only responsibility was to ensure people had the opportunity to cast their ballots.

"As long as I can provide an environment where there is little or no violence, and where people are free to come out and choose to vote or not to vote, that is as much as can be expected from me," Abdullah told AFP.

"It's not my job to force people to come out and vote."

Many registered voters who spoke to AFP made it clear they had no intention of casting their ballots.

"None of us are going to vote," said Mehak Fayaz, 21, one of a group of students studying at Kashmir University in Srinagar.

"New Delhi has been ruling us for years. There has been no difference in the curfews, custodial deaths, the army's human rights violations," Fayaz said.