The crucial Uttar Pradesh elections, which will have a bearing on the national political arena, kicked off yesterday with the first of seven phases seeing millions peacefully exercising their franchise on a day that started off cold and damp but warmed up later.

At the close of day at 5 pm, officials said an estimated 62 per cent of the 1.7 crore had voted in 55 of 403 assembly constituencies in the sprawling state, where Mayawati's BSP is bidding for a second consecutive term. The Samajwadi Party is looking to stymie her chances and the Congress-RLD as well as the 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.

"Apart from a large number of first time voters, there was a large turnout of women, including those belonging to the minorities," UP Chief Electoral Officer Umesh Sinha said.

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.

The cold had kept people indoors in most places in the morning.  In the first two hours of polling that began at 7 am, just 150 voters stepped out in the rain at the Puremoti primary school in Barabanki.

Among the key constituencies that voted were Mahasi and Matera in Bahraich district, Ayodhya in Faizabad, Sitapur, Kushinagar and Mubarakpur in Azamgarh. With 862 candidates in the fray, Barabanki had the maximum number at 26 and Mahmoodabad the least with eight. The candidates included 796 men and 65 women.