Indians braved attacks by separatists and communists as they started voting today in parliament elections expected to return Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governing coalition to power for another five years.
At least three people were killed and seven injured in election violence.
The massive polls in the world’s largest democracy, with more than 660 million registered voters, will be staggered in five phases over three weeks ending on May 10, with vote-counting starting three days later.
Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance headed into the elections with a booming economy likely to grow more than 8% this year and prospects for peace with nuclear rival Pakistan at their highest level in years.
A major issue for peace talks with Pakistan – which were to resume after the elections – is the two nations’ conflicting claims to Kashmir, which is divided between them.
Militants opposed to India’s control over portions of Kashmir were blamed for fatally shooting a paramilitary soldier guarding a polling station and a separate bomb attack in the region that injured eight civilians, including two poll workers.
Islamic militants say the elections legitimise what they see as India’s occupation of the Himalayan region, and have threatened attacks on anyone participating in the elections.
A dozen people were killed during the run-up to the vote.
Police said they killed a suspected Maoist rebel in a shootout in eastern Jharkhand state. Maoist rebels have ordered an election boycott in Jharkhand and neighbouring Bihar state, where a voter was injured when a bomb exploded outside a polling station.
Unidentified gunmen shot and killed a man on his way to vote in Arah, 25 miles west of Patna, the capital of Bihar, police said. Elsewhere in the state, suspected Maoists threw handmade bombs at the house of a local political leader no one was injured.
Despite the violence, millions were expected to cast ballots.
Some 175 million citizens were eligible to vote in 16 states and territories, with 140 of the 543 elected Parliament seats at stake in the first phase.
About 400,000 police and troops were deployed to protect candidates, voters and poll workers, and air force helicopters patrolled the skies over some of the more threatened districts.
Opinion polls have predicted Vajpayee’s coalition would return to power, but his party was not expected to win an outright majority and could even lose a few seats.