At least 11 people died and 18 were injured in violent clashes as Indians started voting today in parliament elections expected to return Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governing coalition to power for another five years.
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 May 10, with vote-counting starting three days later.
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 wounded six civilians, including two poll workers.
A car filled with Indian journalists and human rights activists on their way to monitor polling stations exploded when it ran over a land mine in Kashmir.
The driver and a human rights activist – Asiya Geelani of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons – were killed and four others were wounded.
Maoist rebels have ordered an election boycott in the isolated northeastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar, where a suspected Maoist rebel, a voter, a polling agent and a magistrate were killed and four police officers and a voter were wounded in elections-related violence.
Four soldiers on poll duty were killed and three others injured when the People’s Liberation Army attacked them near the Myanmar border overnight, according to the Press Trust of India.
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.