Indians have voted in the crucial third phase of national elections, with millions going to the polls in the heartland states pivotal to the main opposition’s bid to end ten successive years of Congress party rule.
Suspected Maoist rebels, who have urged a boycott, briefly disrupted voting by launching attacks in their strongholds in eastern Bihar state and neighbouring Chhattisgarh yesterday, despite a security crackdown.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh has called the Maoist rebels India’s biggest internal security threat. They operate in 20 of its 28 states and claim to have thousands of fighters.
The violence came at the start of a marathon six-week election process in the world’s largest democracy.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition, which has strong momentum on promises of a surge in economic growth, is attempting to defeat the centre-left Congress.
Congress – dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – has led India for much of the nearly 67 years since independence from Britain.
Nearly 110 million people were eligible to vote in the third phase in 92 constituencies in 11 of India’s 28 states and three federally administered territories.
The voting runs until 12 May, with results for the 543-seat lower house of parliament due on 16 May.
Parts of sprawling Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states were among the places holding ballots yesterday.
Hours before voting began, Maoist insurgents blew up a Jeep carrying paramilitary soldiers, killing two and wounding three others. Voting was suspended in some parts of Bihar as a result.
The soldiers were patrolling a forest in Munger district when their vehicle hit a landmine nearly 145 miles south-east of Patna, the state capital.
Voting was suspended at 20 nearby polling stations but started as scheduled in other parts of Bihar state.
The insurgents struck again hours later and briefly disrupted voting in neighbouring Chhattisgarh state by firing at security forces guarding ten polling stations in Bastar district, it was reported.
There were no casualties and the rebels fled after security forces returned fire. Voting resumed after security forces combed the area.
Sonia Gandhi, Congress party chief, and her son Rahul Gandhi, the party’s vice-president, voted in the Indian capital, New Delhi, where their party was routed in a regional election in December last year.
Besides Congress and the BJP, the vote is also crucial for the future of India’s anti-corruption party, led by Arvind Kejriwal.
The Aam Admi Party, or Common Man’s Party, caused an upset in the New Delhi election, launching Mr Kejriwal to the national stage. He has led protests and hunger strikes to highlight his fight against corruption over the past two years. The party is contesting nearly 400 parliamentary seats.
The threat of insurgent attacks is always a shadow over Indian elections, although voting in the north-east on Monday and Wednesday was mainly peaceful.
On Wednesday, Maoist rebels killed three soldiers in a gun battle in Chhattisgarh a day before voting started.
In March, rebels killed 15 soldiers and one civilian in their deadliest raid in Chhattisgarh in almost a year, ambushing dozens of troops and police guarding construction workers.