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India in 3rd round of parliament elections

Exit polls after India’s crucial third round of voting suggested Tuesday that the ruling party risks losing its majority in Parliament.
Voters holding Election Commission identity cards wait to cast their votes Monday outside a polling station in Manglipattu, north of Madras, India. M. Lakshman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Exit polls following India’s crucial third round of voting showed Tuesday that the ruling party risks losing its majority in Parliament.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee dismissed the polls from Monday’s voting, declaring he would secure a multiparty coalition strong enough to continue peace initiatives with Pakistan and expand one of the world’s fastest-growing economies for the next five years.

“We are confident that people will vote for us so that we could give concrete shape to our dream of making India a great nation,” Vajpayee told an election rally in Rajasthan.

An exit poll by the New Delhi Television, a private news channel, predicted a divided Parliament with Vajpayee’s governing alliance winning no more than 255 seats, short of the 272 it needs to rule outright. The party currently controls the chamber with 303 seats. It predicted the Congress party and its allies would win up to 210 seats. Smaller groups and independents were likely to get the remaining seats.

Another private television news channel, Aaj Tak predicted 266 seats for the BJP and its allies, six short of the 272 needed for a parliamentary majority and 36 less than it got in 1999. The Congress, it said, would bag 175 seats while independent candidates would get 102.

Opposition leader
The vote could determine the fate of opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party, and her son Rahul. Both ran from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

Rahul Gandhi is fighting for a seat in Parliament elections, the latest member of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to stand for office from the Congress party that once ruled this vast nation.

During the voting Monday, militants attacked polling sites with gunfire, grenades and bombs despite sweeping security measures aimed at protecting voters. The final two rounds in the elections are May 5 and May 10. The results will be tallied May 13.

Sonia Gandhi is hoping for an outcome to cement her position within her party, while Rahul would enter elected office for the first time.

“I think the long journey started many years ago and it continues today,” he told NDTV as he canvassed for votes. “Yes, it is an election and hopefully it goes well, but elections come and go.”

Although Congress is in opposition, the family monopolized Indian politics for most of the first four decades of independence from Britain, producing India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

His daughter, Indira Gandhi, and grandson Rajiv were also prime ministers and both were assassinated. The Italian-born Sonia is Rajiv’s widow.

Visiting polls on Monday, Mrs. Gandhi’s daughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, claimed that Vajpayee, 79, was weak.

“He is getting old. Health is a problem. It’s a weak leadership,” she told The Associated Press. “Leaders from my family always stood up for their convictions.”

Many in the disputed region of Kashmir stayed away from polls after Islamic guerrillas called for a boycott and threatened violence. Voter turnout was only 21 percent, the Election Commission said. Militants seek independence for the Himalayan province or its merger with Pakistan.

'Stable footing'
Vajpayee told high school students that Indians wanted him to continue his unprecedented pursuit of peace with Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbors have gone to war three times since independence from Britain in 1947.

“We have initiated a peace process with Pakistan. This also needs to be continued in an unhindered manner,” he said, according to the Press Trust of India. “We now need to put this on a stable footing.”

At least six people were killed Monday in election-related violence, bringing the death toll to 33 since balloting began on April 20, said Deputy Election Commissioner A.N. Jha. He said 55 percent to 60 percent of the 175 million registered voters participated Monday.

The worst violence Monday occurred in battles at polling stations between political parties in Andhra Pradesh state.

An activist from one of Vajpayee’s chief allies, Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party, was stabbed to death in the state while a member of the rival Congress party was also killed.

In the small tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand, Maoists detonated a land mine, killing an electoral official and his guard, police said. In neighboring Bihar state, a 65-year-old party activist was killed in a polling booth fight.