The world's largest democratic exercise to vote in a new government began in India on Thursday. Voters queued up in 17 states and union territories in the first phase of staggered elections that were marred by Maoist violence, which left at least 18 people dead. The exercise is widely expected to throw up a split verdict.
Indian voters queue up outside polling stations on the first day of staggered elections
It was a bloody start to India's general elections with many insurgency-hit states seeing violence and intimidation as Maoist guerrillas tried to implement their election boycott with a hail of bullets and bomb blasts.
At least 18 people were killed in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Maharashtra as cadres of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), which wants to carry out an agrarian-based revolution, targeted polling officials and security personnel.
There were reports of gun battles, booths being raided, voters being attacked and electronic voting machines being torched.
Police embark on combing operations
Jharkhand’s Inspector General of Police S. N. Pradhan said that police and troops, known as jawans, had been deployed to restore order in the state but that some had got caught in an ambush.
“They went out to a polling station,” he said, “and they were supposed to come back to camp. In the process, they called for a bus and boarded the bus -- that probably was a tactical mistake. The Naxalites must have ambushed then because they blew up a landmine. Combing operations are going on and the commandant is camping there.”
Despite the violence in Jharkand and the other states, the state of Chhatisgarh recorded nearly 50 percent polling.
Decisive first phase
The other states which voted in the first phase include Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Andaman and Nicobar Island and Lakshwadeep.
With 124 of 543 seats up for election, the first election phase is decisive for the main political parties battling for power with several key leaders in the fray.
At the end of the day, it is all about the struggle to reach the coveted seat of power in New Delhi.
Voter participation important for healthy democracy
But the exercise is also about the people and their determination to vote no matter what. Telegu Desam leader, Chandrababu Naidu, and former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, who is a making a determined bid to return to power, encouraged voters to come to the polling stations: “For a healthy democracy, everybody must exercise their vote,” he said.
Voters in Orissa’s Kandamahal district, that was hit by anti-Christian riots last year, queued patiently in the summer heat to cast their vote. According to the district authorities there was a record turnout of 90 percent among those who are still living in relief camps.
Abhirup Kanjal, whose house was destroyed in the riots, said they had all gone to the polling booth “to vote for the candidate who has promised to help us and improve our situation.”
A coalition government seems the only certainty
The one certainty about India's elections is that a coalition will have to be forged to form a government. Both the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are very aware of this fact.
India's electorate totals 714 million -- more than the populations of the US and Russia put together. The five-phased exercise involves millions of officials and security personnel.
The results are expected to come out on May 16. A new government should then be in place within a week.