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Mega vote begins in India

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• Facts about marathon election
• Timeline: Kashmir history
• In-depth: Where conflict rules

NEW DELHI, India -- India's marathon general election is under way, with as many as 650 million people set to cast their votes over the next three weeks.

Tens of thousands of election officials backed by police and soldiers opened polling stations across India on Tuesday for the first phase of the elections in the world's biggest democracy.

Voting is staggered over three weeks to allow people to cast their votes for a new government and prime minister. More than 170 million Indians are expected to vote during the first phase of voting.

Opinion polls indicate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's ruling Hindu nationalist-led coalition is expected to easily win a new five-year term.

But the main opposition Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, has closed the gap in recent weeks.

Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party has dropped its hardline Hindu stance for this election and is instead campaigning on a platform of strong economic growth.

The 79-year-old Vajpayee is seeking a fourth term as prime minister and argues he has earned another five years in office because, he says, he has turned the economy around.

"There is regard for India in the world today. There is food in our warehouses. There is such an image of India today that we can look to the world with confidence," Vajpayee said at a weekend rally.

Indeed, India's financial markets have soared in the past 12 months. The rupee is on a four-year high and analysts say the market is keen to see the BJP returned to power to push through with more aggressive reforms.

But the Congress says Vajpayee's economic changes have benefited only a small minority and more needs to be done.

The Congress has also long accused the BJP of bias against the nation's 120 million Muslims and will be hoping the coalition will fail to win a majority.

Vajpayee (top image) is seeking a fourth term as leader.

Even so, polls show the coalition is likely to be the largest group in parliament and as such would be able to attract smaller parties in order to gain a majority.

Past elections in India have been violent with clashes between rival political groups and insurgent attacks.

Security has been stepped up with thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces to guard polling stations and ballot boxes.

In Kashmir alone, 7,000 security personnel were added to the 65,000 normally deployed in the region. More than 400,000 security force have been deployed throughout the country.

But the high security failed to prevent violence on Monday, when a grenade attack by suspected militants in the disputed region of Kashmir wounded three people, CNN's Satinder Bindra reported.

On Sunday night, two top politicians from the ruling coalition survived apparent attempts on their lives in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar states.

Meanwhile, Muslim militants in Kashmir and leftist guerrillas in the impoverished eastern and southern parts of the country have urged people to stay away from the election, saying it was not a solution to their grievances.

But Bindra reported that despite these calls, early turnout at a polling station in Kashmir was ahead of provincial elections about two years ago.

He said the mood is more relaxed in Kashmir, at least partly due to improved relations between Indian and Pakistan, which both lay claim to the region.

The final day of polling ends May 10 with counting and election results set for May 13.

-- CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra contributed to this report.

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