"Remember that a 50-hour strike called by the separatist leaders doesn't end until later this evening after polling has ended."

'Disenchanted'

The two-day strike has closed shops, schools and offices since Tuesday evening.

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"Elections in Kashmir have always been a difficult process; the average Kashmiri voter is disenchanted with an electoral system which they feel is betraying their cause rather than actually working in their favour," Supri reported.

"The figures here are expected to be lower than average Indian voter turnout of 50 per cent."

A number of prominent separatist leaders have been placed under house arrest and Indian forces have imposed "strict restrictions" on people's movements.

"It is not that we are against the concept of elections, but what we are saying is let there be a resolution first," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said.

"Elections cannot be a substitute to what they are demanding - their right to determination," he told Al Jazeera by telephone from house arrest in Srinagar.

"When it comes to Kashmir, you have more than 700,000 troops in Kashmir, no international observers are being allowed ... so we don't trust the system." 

Despite the heavy security, police said separatists planted a bomb along a road in Srinagar which was later detected and defused.

The armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir has left 47,000 people dead since 1989.

Crucial battles

Elsewhere, a series of contests in other states could have a significant impact on the final result, with many observers predicting that a handful of seats could separate the ruling Congress party and its main rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In West Bengal, Congress hopes to gain the upper hand over the BJP by taking some seats from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is facing a possible backlash from farmers angry over a policy of seizing land for industry.

The state's communist government tried to set up industrial complexes in Singur and Nandigram, but the efforts failed after angry demonstrations.

Polls schedule

Voting takes place in the 543 constituencies in five phases from April 16 to May 13. Results will be announced on May 16.

Phase I held on April 16
Phase II held on April 22-23
Phase III held on April 30
Phase IV on May 7
Phase V on May 13

"I think the results in West Bengal in this round of the poll are crucial for the Congress if they want to form government at the centre," Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury, a political analyst from the Calcutta Research Group, said.

Congress has joined with the state's main opposition Trinamool Congress party (TMC) to fight the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The ruling party is also expected to do well in federally administered New Delhi and the desert state of Rajasthan, which the BJP swept in the 2004 elections but lost at state level to Congress in elections last year.

Coalition expected

Neither Congress nor the BJP party are seen as likely to secure an absolute majority after the votes are counted and another coalition government is expected to emerge.

Congress's Rahul Gandhi signalled on Thursday that the party was open to sharing power with its former left-wing coalition partners.

"The field is open to post-poll alliances," he said, stressing common ground on income distribution, health and education.

The communists quit the coalition last year over a civilian nuclear deal signed with the United States.

Almost 95 million of India's 700 million registered voters are eligible to take part on Thursday.

The final round in the five-phase election will take place on May 13, with results expected on May 16. According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2.