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Focus on BJP as India votes in 3rd round
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Millions of Indians voted in the third round of a general election on Thursday in several states seen as key to the Bharatiya Janata Party's bid to win power from the Congress-led ruling coalition.
Mumbai voted just months after an attack by Islamist gunmen that killed 166 people and inflamed tensions with nuclear-armed Pakistan, a security issue the BJP has used to criticise the government for being soft on terrorism.
The BJP appears to be trailing its main rival in a staggered, month-long election that could produce a weak coalition government as India grapples with the global economic slowdown and a spate of militant attacks in the past year.
Many middle-class voters in Mumbai said anger over the attacks pushed them to vote.
"I would have never voted if it hadn't been for 26/11. I think it's shaken all of us and the performance by our MPs has been dismal." said Devang Vyas, a 39-year-old manager. "I'm voting for change."
Analysts say the BJP hopes anger over the Mumbai attacks may help garner more support among 144 million eligible voters in Thursday's round that covers Hindu nationalist strongholds in western and central India, as well as insurgency-hit Kashmir.
The BJP will hope to get a big haul in Gujarat where one of the party's biggest stars, the controversial chief minister Narendra Modi, has been touted as an exemplar of the party's campaign of development and good governance.
Both main parties may need the support of regional players to form a government after the world's largest democratic exercise, in which 714 million people from a myriad of castes, religions and ethnicities can vote, ends on May 13.
While India's main vote battle is between Congress and the BJP, a coalition of smaller parties known as the Third Front has an outside chance. That worries many investors who see the bloc as an unknown quantity if it comes to power.
The BJP needs to fulfil its potential in stronghold states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka on Thursday to boost its chances of forging a winning coalition, said Swapan Dasgupta, a political analyst with links to the party.
"All in all, it's a big day for the BJP. They're fighting in their strongholds or places where they feel they can make inroads," he said.
The BJP scored a narrow victory over Congress in Gujarat, which counts for 26 out of 543 seats in the national parliament.
Modi, tipped to eventually take over from the party's candidate for prime minister, the 81-year-old L.K. Advani, is seen as the driving force behind Gujarat's economic success story and appeals to the party's large Hindu vote bank nationwide.
The BJP will hope to build on what the business-friendly Modi achieved at the state level.
But Modi's image -- and the BJP's -- may be tarnished as he is under investigation for allegedly turning a blind eye to some of India's worst religious riots, in which around 2,500 people, mainly Muslims, died in Gujarat in 2002.
Election officials estimated Thursday's voter turnout at 49-50 percent.
Maoist violence hit the first two rounds of voting in the April-May general election, killing at least 21 people when rebels targeted police and polling officials.
West Bengal has deployed more than 19,000 paramilitary troops. But as polls opened, a blast at a school in Maoist-hit Purulia district wounded one paramilitary man.
A suspected Maoist blast later killed two election officials returning from duty in a jungle area of the state, police said.
Parts of the restive Kashmir valley voted despite a boycott call by separatists who do not want New Delhi to present a healthy turnout as Kashmiris' acceptance of Indian rule. The turnout was a low 21 percent, officials said.
On Wednesday government troops locked down Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, the focus of a 20-year insurgency.
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