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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 April, 2004, 03:33 GMT 04:33 UK
Indians vote in national election
Presiding officers near Guwahati, Assam, India
The voting is high-tech even if other aspects are not
Polls have opened in Indian national elections with the ruling coalition hoping to benefit from a good economy and peace moves with Pakistan.

Over 670 million people will vote in four main phases ending on 10 May, allowing two million security officers to follow the polls around the country.

Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee called the election five months early, sensing a feel-good factor.

The main opposition Congress says this has bypassed many of the poor.

A bullish Mr Vajpayee, whose Bharatiya Janata Party leads the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has surprised his allies by calling for an outright BJP majority.

I came to vote because wasting one's ballot in a democracy is a sin
Mohammad Afzal
Kashmiri voter

"My worry now is, if we are again saddled with a 22-party coalition... Such a situation is better avoided," he told the Times of India on the eve of the poll.

The election is the first to be carried out entirely on electronic voting machines, which have been transported in their tens of thousands to stations from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north, to the sub-tropical forests of southern India.

"I came to vote because wasting one's ballot in a democracy is a sin," Mohammad Afzal, the first voter at the polling station in the Kashmiri village of Chainabal village, told AP news agency.

New image

The BJP has tried to play down its hardline Hindu image and actively courted the Muslim vote.

Early voting in the southern city of Hyderabad
Hundreds of millions are expected to take part
Mr Vajpayee can point to an economy set for 8% growth this year and recent peace moves with Pakistan as his administration's key achievements.

These have helped give the NDA a lead in many Indian opinion polls, although these have often proved unreliable and the fight may be closer than earlier expected.

Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, says the economic growth has not benefited the rural poor and is unimpressed by the peace process with Pakistan.

The party also plays on the BJP's Hindu nationalism, saying it threatens the country's secular tradition.

However, the BBC's Adam Mynott notes that for many, if not most, voters, it will be local, district or state matters which weigh on their minds when they enter the polling stations.

The BBC's Nick Bryant
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