Militants strike as India goes to the polls

MILITANTS struck polling sites with grenades, rifles and bombs yesterday as Indians from Goan beaches to Himalayan mountains voted in a crucial third round of elections that will decide the fate of opposition leader Sonia Gandhi and her son, first-time candidate Rahul.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was expected to return to office at the end of the three-week, five-phase parliament elections on the strength of a booming economy and peace prospects with neighbouring Pakistan.

But the latest surveys indicated he may end up with a slimmer majority and a less-stable coalition after votes are counted on May 13.

Four people were killed, bringing the death toll for the elections so far to 31, compared to 100 in the last national election in 1999.

Some of the worst violence today was in Andhra Pradesh state, where one of Vajpayee’s chief allies was in trouble.

Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party was facing the strong possibility of losing power in the state’s assembly elections.

Naidu’s chunk of 29 parliament seats had enabled Vajpayee to ignore walkouts and walkout threats from his government by smaller parties during the past five years. Police fired into the air to halt battles at polling stations between Naidu supporters and the Congress party, and voting was halted at many places.

A bomb hurled during one fight injured 60 people, and one of Naidu’s party activists was stabbed to death.

A Maoist rebel group also set off an explosion at a polling booth in Andhra Pradesh, causing no injuries. In the small tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand, Maoist rebels detonated a land mine, killing a poll presiding officer and his police guard.

In neighbouring Bihar state, a 65-year-old party activist was killed in fighting outside a polling booth between supporters of Vajpayee and a regional party.

In Jammu-Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and in northeastern Manipur, many heavily guarded polling stations were empty, as voters obeyed Islamic militant calls for poll boycotts or feared their threats to kill election participants.

A grenade was thrown at one empty polling station, injuring two police guards, and in the state’s summer capital, Srinagar, separatists burned tyres and hurled stones at baton-wielding police.

Militants fired on at least six polling stations in northeastern Manipur state, where tribal separatist groups called for a boycott and kept the main political parties from campaigning by threatening assassinations.

Voting was brisk in the Hindu heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, which has produced 12 of its 13 prime ministers.

The state has 110 million registered voters and 80 parliament seats, 32 being elected today.

Exit polls for the first round of balloting on April 20 and subsequent surveys showed Vajpayee’s alliance might not win the majority it needs to form a stable government, forcing him to seek support from more small parties and independents.

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