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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 21:09 GMT
Tight contest in Punjab poll
Officials load voting machines for polling booths
Punjab voters will cast their ballots electronically
By the BBC's Asit Jolly in Chandigarh

Nearly 16 million voters are expected to exercise their right to vote to elect a new provincial government in the north Indian State of Punjab on Wednesday.

The governing coalition - between Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - is facing a strong challenge for the 117-member state legislative assembly.

Policemen guard polling station
Security remains tight for the polls
The coalition emerged as a formidable alliance between Punjab's main Sikh party and the Hindu nationalist BJP that virtually swept into office in February 1997.

Led by outgoing Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, the alliance then routed the Congress party which had, until then, been in power in the state.

But now, the weight of five years of incumbency appears to have taken its toll on Punjab's governing alliance - with political analysts speaking of "a resurgent Congress party".

Freshly enthused under the leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh - scion of the erstwhile princely state of Patiala - Congress is reportedly giving the alliance a good run for its money.

Curiously, this particular election has been bereft of the popular issues that have usually been crucial in past electoral exercises in Punjab.

Focus on corruption

With the demise of the separatist movement for an independent Sikh homeland, sensitive issues like state repression and human rights abuse are no longer in focus.

But even issues like development, growing unemployment, the agricultural crisis in the state, and the disturbing fall in the male-female ratio have failed to move the electorate.

Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, the only electoral issue that was most hotly debated during the two-week campaign was corruption in public offices.

Bhai Ranjit Singh, priest-turned-activist
Politics and faith share a fine line

Given this, the Congress party's campaign charging almost everyone in office, including Chief Minister Badal and his family members, with "blatant corruption" proved highly successful.

The governing coalition failed to adequately respond to even Congress' accusations directly charging Mr Badal with accumulating huge personal wealth at home and abroad.

Though the chief minister and his clan have consistently denied the allegations, political observers believe the Congress has made an impact on the voters.

Hi-tech polls

Besides the SAD-BJP alliance and the Congress, which has an electoral understanding with the Communist Party of India (CPI), other key players are the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Panthic Morcha.

However, both of these parties are viewed as fringe groups, which will split the shares of both Congress and the incumbent coalition.

The BSP is seen as representative of lower caste voters.

Analysts say it will marginally cut into votes that would otherwise have gone to the Congress.

The Panthic Morcha - a front of radical Sikh Groups opposed to the SAD led by Chief Minister Badal - is expected to similarly divide the SAD's traditional, rural or peasant vote bank.

For the first time on Wednesday, all the votes cast will be recorded on electronic voting machines, or EVMs, at all 19,222 polling stations.

When voting is over, the loaded EVMs will be held under strict security until the counting on 24 February.

Election Commission officials say the new state government will be ready to be sworn into office before the end of February.

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