With police and party officials standing watch, election workers began counting votes Monday in parliamentary elections to determine India's next government. Early trends showed a Hindu nationalist party making strong gains.
After two weeks of voting marred by violence, security was tight while workers tallied ballots for 527 of the 543 seats at stake. Two other seats are being filled by appointment; in others, voting has not yet been held or the count has been slowed by challenges to balloting.The first results from 95 voting districts suggested the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was leading in 44 districts, a gain of 13 over its 1996 results, independent New Delhi Television reported.
Its closest rival, the Congress Party, got the most votes in partial returns from 18 districts, but was losing four others that it had won in 1996. The results suggested a further decline for the long-dominant centrist Congress Party, which has been weakened in the 1990s by corruption scandals and other problems.
The Bharatiya Janata was making gains in most parts of the country, including southern India where it had no previous power base. But it was suffering setbacks in Maharashtra and Rajastahan, two northwestern states where it leads the state governments.
The BJP's position as the largest party in the last parliament bolstered its claims to being in the best position to give India a stable government, with voter discontent over political uncertainty a key campaign issue. Opponents fear a BJP government would deepen tensions between Muslims and Hindus in Hindu-majority India.
Exit polls after the fourth day of voting Saturday indicated the party would win the most seats in parliament but not the clear majority needed to govern without partners.
Counting was to continue around the clock. The first races were to be declared late Monday.
The elections in the world's largest democracy - some 300 million voters turned out - was staggered over four days over the last two weeks to allow security troops time to move to different trouble spots.
Voting in another six races is scheduled Saturday and June 21. With the current federal budget expiring March 31, officials can't wait until all the votes are in before moving to seat a new government.
Violence erupted on each of the four voting days held so far. On Saturday, eight people were killed in election-related violence, bringing the death toll to at least 84.