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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
Key poll in India's Assam state
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Assam

Elections are being held for nearly half of the state's 126 seats [Picture: Shib Shankar Chatterjee]
The first phase of voting in elections in India's north-eastern state of Assam, a potentially stiff test for the ruling Congress party, has ended.

Elections are being held for 65 of the state's 126 state assembly seats. Polls for the remaining 61 seats will be held on 10 April.

Congress is in power in Assam, but a regional party and the main opposition BJP are mounting a strong challenge.

Elections to five Indian states are being held in April and May.

About 68% of the eligible voters cast their ballots, election officials said.

In Assam Congress is up against the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the Hindu nationalist BJP and a new party for Muslims, the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Projecting stability

"The opposition is divided, so we don't have much to worry," said senior Congress leader Bishnu Prasad.

But AGP leaders claimed they would oust the Congress.

"We are coming back to power, though we may need support from some smaller parties," said AGP spokesperson Apurba Kumar Bhattacharya.

Police outside Assam polling booth
Security is tight for the elections

The Congress is projecting itself as a party of stability and development.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself elected to the upper house of the Indian parliament from Assam, promised more federal support for the state while campaigning last week.

The opposition BJP has complained about the prime minister to India's independent election commission, alleging that he violated the election code of conduct by announcing a rehabilitation package for displaced tribal peoples in Assam's Karbi Anglong district.

The prime minister's office has denied the allegation.

The Congress promises to carry forward the fledgling peace process started with the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), despite the killing of several rebel leaders during ongoing military operations.

"The government has to choose between military operations or the peace process - it can't have both," said ULFA spokesperson Rubi Bhuiyan.

'Safeguard' removed

The Congress is worried about defending its traditional support base amongst the Muslims and the tea garden labourers who constitute more than 40% of the state's population.

Manmohan Singh in Assam
PM Manmohan Singh is elected to the parliament from Assam

Assam's 28% Muslim population, mostly of Bengali origin, are apprehensive after the country's Supreme Court scrapped the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983.

The law was seen as a safeguard for them because it prevented arbitrary deportation on suspicion of being illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

The UDF hopes to draw away some Muslim support by blaming the Congress for "letting down the minorities".

Assam has the second highest percentage of Muslims among Indian states after Indian-administered Kashmir.

The BJP says it will also improve its position in the state assembly.

It is willing to share power with the AGP if it gets rid of its leftist allies, it says.

A smaller party of former insurgents of the Bodo tribe is also expected to win some seats in western Assam.

Elections are being held in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry in April and May.

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