- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

NEW DELHI _ It takes a month to elect a new leader in the world’s largest democracy.

In remote farming villages and sprawling concrete cities, tens of millions of Indians voted Thursday amid a deeply fractured political scene largely empty of national issues. The election won’t wrap up until mid-May _ and there may not be a new government selected until early June _ but a series of bloody guerrilla attacks and blazing summertime temperatures failed to keep voters away from the polls.

Early estimates indicated a fairly heavy turnout, with most states reporting more than 60 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots, Deputy Election Commissioner R. Balakrishnan told reporters. More than 140 million people were eligible to vote Thursday.

The vote was the first of five phases in which a total of some 714 million people _ more than 10 times the entire French population _ will be eligible to go to the polls.

Thursday also saw more than three dozen attacks by Maoist fighters in scattered rural areas across eastern and central India. The violence left at least 17 people dead _ including police, soldiers, polling officials and civilians _ and three election officials were kidnapped.



While the rebels, known as Naxalites, have long fought the government in a bloody insurgency, the intensity of the attacks came as a surprise on a day when tens of thousands of security forces were deployed.

“There is no record of this in the past _ ever,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi. “For the first time they have struck like this on a voting day. This is a direct political challenge.”

Even in the most troubled regions, though, authorities were optimistic about the election.

“People want democracy to triumph,” said Tarun Gogoi, the top official in the insurgency-wracked northeastern state of Assam, where there were no reports of violence Thursday despite militant threats that voters should boycott the polls.

In one isolated Assamese town, set amid one of the state’s most violent regions, 30-year-old homemaker Monalisa Bordoloi Chakravarty was among hundreds of people lining up Thursday morning at a neighborhood polling station.

“I am aware of the threat by militants, but one can’t stay at home out of fear,” she said.

Media reports indicated polling was brisk in the morning but slowed as noon approached _ bringing temperatures that hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius) in many parts of the country.

With more than 1.2 billion citizens, India normally holds staggered elections for logistical and security reasons.

Results of the massive election, which will use more than 1.3 million electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling stations, are expected May 16. According to the constitution, a new parliament has to be in place by June 2.

But few expect a clear mandate from Indian voters after a lackluster campaign that has been devoid of resonant, central issues, a reflection of a country fragmented by differences of region, religion and caste, as well as the splintering of support for the two main national parties.

Polls indicate neither the Congress party, which leads the current governing coalition, nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own.

Instead, many of the seats are expected to go to a range of regional and caste-based parties that tend to focus on local issues and local promises, from cheaper electricity for farmers to free color TVs.

That means the elections will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government cobbled together from across the political spectrum _ a situation that could leave the next prime minister little time to deal with India’s many troubles.

“Whoever wins, you can be guaranteed they won’t deliver on education, health care, environmental reform or foreign policy,” said Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian and author of “India after Gandhi.”

“The prime minister of the day, whoever it is, his working day will be wholly taken up with placating his coalition partners” and members of his party who were not given key Cabinet positions, Guha said.

Congress, which is ending a five-year stint in power, has seen its main achievement _ India’s spectacular economic growth, which has averaged more than 8 percent in recent years _ hit by the global economic crisis.

It also has faced severe criticism for the bungled handling of the Mumbai terrorist attack in November, when 10 gunmen rampaged through the city, killing 166 people.

The BJP also is in disarray. Its leadership is aging and fragmented, its anti-terrorism line was criticized as too harsh in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, and it has been blamed for stoking tensions between India’s Hindu majority and large Muslim minority.

Thursday’s voting, meanwhile, included some of the most troubled parts of India, including states battered by attacks by the Maoists. The Naxalites have fought the government for decades in a handful of rural areas, charging authorities with plundering natural resources while providing little to local residents.

Early Thursday, suspected rebels triggered a land mine that killed six paramilitary soldiers and two civilians near the village of Latehar in the eastern state of Jharkhand, said superintendent of police Hemant Topo.

Elsewhere in the state, three election officials were kidnapped by rebels, police spokesman S.N. Pradhan said.

In neighboring Bihar, suspected rebels attacked a polling station in Gaya district, killing two security officials, police said.

Five polling workers were killed in the central state of Chhattisgarh when a roadside bomb went off beneath their vehicle. Two paramilitary soldiers were shot and killed by Naxalite militants elsewhere in the state, officials said.

___

Associated Press writers Wasbir Hussain in Gauhati and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.

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