LUCKNOW: The crucial Uttar Pradesh elections, which will have a bearing on the national political arena, kicked off Wednesday with the first of seven phases seeing millions peacefully exercising their franchise on a day that had started off cold and damp but warmed up later.
At close of day 5 p.m., officials said an estimated 62 percent of the 1.7 crore had voted in 55 of 403 assembly constituencies in the sprawling state, also India's most populous, where Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is bidding for a second consecutive term.
The Samajwadi Party (SP) is looking to stymie her chances and the Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are hoping to make a considerable electoral dent.
Election day dawned cold and damp with many voters preferring to stay indoors. But voting picked up pace as the sun shone and the temperature rose.
By afternoon, long queues were seen outside polling booths in constituencies in the state's eastern part. As the day drew to a close, more and more people came out of their homes.
The overall turnout was 62 percent, considerably higher than the 2007 first round tally of 46.7 percent.
"Apart from a large number of first time voters, both boys and girls, there was a large turnout of women, including those belonging to the minorities," Uttar Pradesh Chief Electoral Officer Umesh Sinha told IANS.
The day proceeded on a peaceful note. No untoward incident was reported from any of the 18,083 polling booths or outside.
About 55,000 paramilitary troopers and about 10,000 men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) as well as police personnel kept vigil.
In sensitive booths in Ayodhya, officials did not even honour passes to the media given by the Election Commission, leading to some journalists lodging a protest.
It was a vote for development, said many of the voters.
"We've seen enough of caste but in this election there are several people like me who have decided to look ahead. We want to vote for a person who can provide development," Bhola Nath Mishra told IANS outside a booth in Bhittaria village, about 65 km from here.
The cold had kept people indoors in most places in the morning.
In the first two hours of polling that began at 7 a.m., just 150 voters stepped out in the rain at the Puremoti primary school in Barabanki, 35 km from here.
Among the key constituencies that voted Wednesday were Mahasi and Matera in Bahraich district, Ayodhya in Faizabad, Sitapur, Kushinagar, Mubarakpur in Azamgarh and Gazipur.
With 862 candidates in the first-phase fray, Barabanki had the maximum number at 26 and Mahmoodabad the least with eight. The candidates included 796 men and 65 women.
The last round of the seven-phase elections will be held March 3 and the votes counted March 6.
Prominent among those in the fray in the first phase were the sons of two Congress MPs, Jagdambika Pal and Beni Prasad Verma, the union steel minister. While Abhishek Pal was contesting from Basti, Rakesh Verma was fielded from Dariyabad.
This phase is also seen as an acid test for Congress star campaigner Rahul Gandhi, who has travelled and campaigned extensively.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley expressed confidence that his party's strength in the state would increase.
"We believe ... we will dictate the politics of the future in Uttar Pradesh," he said.