Tens of millions of Indians voted yesterday under the shadow of violence and an economic slowdown in the second stage of a month-long general election that could produce a weak coalition.
Hundreds of thousands of police guarded some 200 million people eligible to vote after a mostly peaceful first phase of polls last week, although there were some incidents of Maoist violence.
The ruling Congress party-led coalition appears to lead against an alliance headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but both may need the support of a host of smaller regional parties to win office.
Analysts say such a government is unlikely to be stable or be able to bridge a yawning fiscal deficit and push financial reforms, including slashing subsidies and handling privatization at a time of a severe economic downturn.
There are also investor worries over the rise of a group of smaller parties, known as the “Third Front,” who are often seen as opportunist and an unknown quantity in government.
Yesterday’s poll will see Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cast his vote in Guwahati, the principal city of the northeastern state of Assam which was hit by a string of bomb attacks by separatists in the run up to the election.
Long lines of people stood in the rain in Guwahati waiting to cast their vote. Armed police guarded the booths.
“There is no cause for fear and I have come here to vote on my own,” said Biren Barua, a mid-30s voter who waited to vote in Guwahati.
The second round of polling, the biggest of the five phases, sees India’s rural heartland voting, but also the IT center of Bangalore and some states where Maoists are strong.
Maoist rebels killed five election officials in a landmine blast in Chhattisgarh state during the last round of voting. Eleven police were also killed across the central and eastern “red belt.”
The rebels blasted a railway station and chopped down trees to block roads in Jharkhand state yesterday. They seized a train on Wednesday in a show of strength before releasing the passengers unharmed.
Police said they were locked in two separate gunfights with Maoists near the eastern city of Jamshedpur yesterday after the rebels attacked police and a voting station.
The staggered voting is to allow security forces to move around the country to curb any attempt to coerce an electorate more than twice the population of the US.
To enable voting in remote villages, electronic voting machines are transported by elephants, camels and boats. At some places, polling officials have to trek for days.
The outcome of the election will be known on May 16.