Shimla: The Congress forged ahead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Himachal Pradesh on Thursday as officials counted tens of thousands of votes polled in last month's state election.

After two hours of vote count that began at 8 am, the BJP was trailing the Congress. BJP candidates seemed to be on the winning track in 23 constituencies compared to 37 of the Congress.

Trends were available for 65 of the state's 68 constituencies. But pundits said the race to control the 68-member assembly was still open. No result had been declared yet. Congress veteran and former chief minister Virbhadra Singh was confident his party would oust the BJP.

"We are very confident of forming a government," he told the media. BJP Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal was initially supremely confident of retaining power but then gave a cautious comment, "We did our best, and let us see who will form the government."

Among the political veterans who were trailing were seven-time legislator Vidya Stokes of the Congress and former Congress state chief Kaul Singh.BJP state leader Satpal Satti was also trailing, officials said.

The fate of 459 candidates, including 106 independents, will be decided during the day. Nearly 74 percent of the 4.6 million electors exercised their franchise Nov 4. It was an all-time record for assembly polls in the hill state.

The Himachal Lokhit Party (HLP), formed under the leadership of BJP rebel and four-time former MP Maheshwar Singh, and the CPI-M are giving a tough fight to both main political parties on more than five seats.

In 2007, the BJP won 41 seats, the Congress 23, the Bahujan Samaj Party one and independents three. The BSP legislator later joined the BJP.

(Agencies)

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