Maoist Threat Shadows Second Round of Indian Elections

AMETHI ~ Millions of Indians voted on Thursday in the second and largest stage of month-long general elections, with security forces on high alert for attacks by Maoist rebels opposed to the polls.

Polling stations opened across 140 constituencies in 12 states, from industrial Maharashtra in the southwest, to the heartland of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty in Uttar Pradesh and Maoist-racked Bihar in the east.

Around 195 million people, or three times the entire population of France, were eligible to vote in Thursday’s ballot.

The five-stage election – the world’s largest democratic exercise – wraps up on May 13, with final results expected three days later.

With neither of the two main parties – the incumbent Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – seen as capable of securing an absolute majority, the likely outcome is an unsteady coalition that would struggle to see out a full term.

Shortly after polls opened, a landmine blast triggered by suspected Maoists in Jharkand state, neighbouring Bihar, injured a member of the security forces and two election officials.

The threat of extremist violence was highlighted Wednesday when Maoists briefly hijacked a train with several hundred passengers in Jharkand.

The hostages were soon released, but the incident underlined the rebels’ ability to strike, seemingly at will.

Maoist attacks on polling stations during the first phase of voting last week claimed at least 19 lives, including 10 paramilitary troopers and five election workers.

The rebels, who say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers, have been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest overall threat to national stability.

The insurgency grew out of a peasant uprising in 1967 and is active in more than half of India’s 29 states.

More than two million security personnel have been deployed to keep the electoral process on track.

Excited voters hung around one particular polling station in Guwahati, capital of northeastern Assam state, where Manmohan Singh was to cast his ballot.

“I’m hoping I’ll be able to vote along with the prime minister,” said first-time voter Diganta Sharma. “I don’t know what time he’s coming, but I’m willing to wait all day.”

The election comes at a pivotal time for India and its 714 million electorate, with a once red-hot economy feeling the strain of the global downturn and relations with neighbouring Pakistan at a new low since the deadly Mumbai attacks in November.

But strong, decisive leadership will be difficult to provide given the splintered nature of the electorate, expected to hand up to 50 percent of the 543 seats in parliament to a plethora of local and regional parties.

For the Congress and the BJP, a realistic “victory” would mean emerging as the single largest bloc and using that to attract enough partners needed to govern.

The Congress campaign has relied heavily on the charisma of Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and, at 38, seen as a prime minister-in-waiting.

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