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India set to be ruled by coalition

After the final round of voting in elections yesterday, polling officers today begin the task of counting over 330 million ballots to determine which of three main parties will govern India for the next five years.

No clear front-runner has emerged in these fiercely-contested parliamentary and state assembly elections. But early exit polls give the ruling Congress party a slight edge over the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, in third place, the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF). It is doubtful that the Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, will secure a majority of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

Election officials said voting in the third and last phase of the Indian elections passed smoothly in many states. But in Bihar, 15 people were killed and another 50 were injured in bomb blasts and shoot-outs between rival party supporters. So far, 39 people have died in Bihar during electioneering.

For the first time in seven years, Indians in the troubled Himalayan state of Jammu-Kashmir were allowed to vote in parliamentary and state assembly elections. But sabotage threats by Muslim separatists frightened off many voters, even in the predominately Hindu area of Jammu and in Leh, a mountainous region near Tibet whose inhabitants are mainly Buddhists. Polling in the turbulent Kashmir valley, where over 20,000 people have died in a six-year revolt against the Indian security forces, has been delayed until later this month.

Indian authorities claimed that Pakistani forces fired artillery shells into Kashmir yesterday to disrupt polling along their disputed border. Islamabad gives support to the Kashmiri insurgents.

In the north-eastern state of Manipur, where Indian security forces are fighting separatists, over a dozen bombs were set off to scare away voters. In communist-run West Bengal, where voter turnout at 75 per cent was the nation's highest, both the BJP and the Congress complained of "massive" vote-rigging.

With many political experts predicting that India will face a hung parliament, some parties are already putting out feelers to possible coalition partners. The National Front-Left Front is reported to have made moves towards the Congress party but is said to be demanding that Mr Rao is ditched as leader - a condition that a senior Congress official said it had no intention of meeting.