Jammu and Kashmir goes to the polls Monday to elect a new assembly amid boycott calls by Muslim separatists, with the 10 constituencies in the first of seven-phase elections spread over the Kashmir Valley, the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the mainly Buddhist Ladakh.
With a world keenly watching the outcome of the electoral battle, the authorities have deployed tens of thousands of security personnel to ensure peaceful polling following boycott calls by Muslim separatists.
But defiance of the militant groups is already in some evidence. In the fray are a record 102 candidates, including 22 in Sonawari and 19 in Bandipora constituencies in the Kashmir Valley, the hub of the separatist movement that has claimed thousands of lives since 1989.
But officials and political pundits have warned that the boycott call could hit turnout in the valley although polling is expected to be high in Ladakh and Jammu's Poonch district.
Vying for power are the Congress, People's Democratic Party (PDP), National Conference and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Also in the fray are the Panthers Party as well as a slew of independents.
The Congress and PDP had together ruled the state since 2002 but the government of Congress chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad collapsed after the PDP withdrew its legislative support this year.
The 10 of 87 constituencies going to the polls Monday are Gurez, Bandipora and Sonawari (Kashmir Valley), Leh, Nobra, Zanskar and Kargil (Ladakh) and Surankote, Mendhar and Poonch-Haveli (Jammu region).
There are six candidates in Gurez, Poonch-Haveli has 13, Mendhar 12, Surankote 11, and there are five each in Kargil, Leh and Zanskar and four in Nobra.
"We are expecting a fairly good voter turnout in the four assembly constituencies of Ladakh region and the three in Jammu region," said one official.
The authorities have warned separatists and their supporters not to disrupt the electoral process.
But political leaders admitted that the boycott call would affect voter turnout in Bandipora and Sonawari but not Gurez, located in northern Kashmir close to the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Campaigning by political parties and others has been low key in Bandipora and Sonawari, which have strong separatist pockets of influence.
The separatist leaders have called for a march to Bandipora and Sonawari Monday.
But Inspector General of Police B. Srinivas said: "We have a strategy to isolate the separatist leaders so that they do not succeed in preventing voters from exercising their democratic right to vote. But we shall also not force an unwilling voter to vote."
The main battle in the Muslim-majority valley is expected to be between the National Conference, PDP and influential independents. The Congress seems to have lost ground in the valley following violent protests there against the allotment of land to the Amarnath shrine board.
In Ladakh'a Kargil and Zanskar areas, which have sizeable Muslim voters, could be a safe bet for the National Conference. Nobra and Leh could throw up Buddhist candidates as likely winners. Leh, Nobra and Kargil were won by independents in 2002 while the National Conference won in Zanskar.
In Bandipora, National Conference's Ghulam Rasool Mir is pitted against Nizamuddin Bhat of PDP and Usman Majid of Awami League. Going by the undercurrent in Bandipora, Majid, who won in 2002, has the upper hand.
In Sonawari, National Conference's sitting legislator Muhammad Akbar Lone faces a serious challenge from Yasir Reshi of PDP and an independent Shia candidate, Abid Ansari, younger brother of Molvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansari, a Shia leader of the valley.
In Gurez, Nazir Ahmed Gurezi of the National Conference is seeking re-election. He is pitted against Fakir Muhammad of the Congress.
In Mendhar, Surankote and Poonch-Haveli, the Congress, National Conference and BJP take on one another. Mendhar and Poonch-Haveli were won by the National Conference in the last elections.
BR Sharma, the state chief electoral officer, said all preparations were in place for the polls.
The 10 constituencies will have 1,064 polling stations. There are 58,073 voters in Kargil, 62,533 in Leh, 20,044 in Zanskar, 11,863 in Nobra, 84,726 in Sonawari, 86,306 in Bandipora, 15,330 in Gurez, 84,969 in Surankote, 77,853 in Mendhar and 96,758 voters in Poonch-Haveli.
In Nobra, a polling station has been set up for just 14 voters (seven men and women each). Twentyfour polling staff and security men will be deployed in this centre.
Polling in Jammu and Kashmir will be held in seven phases: Nov 17, Nov 23, Nov 30 and Dec 7, Dec 13, Dec 17 and Dec 24. The counting of votes will take place Dec 28.