AMRITSAR: Elections began on Monday in India's bread basket Punjab state, where the national ruling Congress party hopes to wrest back power amid voter anger over the struggling local economy.
The poll, held under tight security, is one of five mid-term state election tests for Congress, which is headed by Italian-born party president Sonia Gandhi and is the leading member of the ruling national coalition in New Delhi.
At least five people were killed in poll violence at the weekend in voting for a new legislature in the insurgency-hit northeastern state of Manipur, and tens of thousands of security personnel were posted across Punjab state.
Punjab, which borders Pakistan, is known for its revolving-door governments. No ruling party in the fertile wheat-growing state of nearly 30 million people has been re-elected to office since 1972, according to official records.
Congress, out of power in the state since 2007, is therefore optimistic it will return to the helm because of voter anger over a sluggish agrarian economy, chronic power shortages, corruption and widespread unemployment.
Punjab once boasted India's highest per-capita income, but it now stands in ninth place among India's states and union territories, according to 2009/2010 government figures.
Voters lined up even before the polling booths opened as 75,000 security men stood guard to ensure safety in a state wracked in the 1980s by a deadly Sikh separatist militancy.
The main contest is between the governing coalition, formed by the regional Shiromani Akali Dal and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Congress.
After the Punjab elections, all eyes will be on pivotal Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, led by populist firebrand chief minister Mayawati. It goes to the polls next week.
Rahul Gandhi, heir-apparent of the Gandhi political dynasty that has dominated India's post-independence politics, has led campaigning in Uttar Pradesh and the performance of the future leader is being closely scrutinised.
Polling was also under way Monday in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, where the BJP was fighting to win a second term in face of opposition from Congress.
The results for all five states will be announced on March 6.