Maoists mar first round of India’s balloting with violence (Roundup)

April 16th, 2009 - 9:48 pm ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party New Delhi, April 16 (IANS) Millions voted across India Thursday in the first round of elections to pick a new parliament in the world’s largest democracy, but the exercise was marred by extremist violence that left 19 people dead in three states.
At least 50 percent of the 143 million voters - of the country’s 714 million - exercised their franchise in 124 constituencies in 15 states and two union territories in the start of one of India’s most bitterly fought elections that are expected to throw up another splintered Lok Sabha.

After 10 hours of polling, the Election Commission estimated the voting average at between 46 percent in Bihar to a high 86 percent in Lakshadweep islands, covering much of the length and breadth of India.

“The elections were by and large peaceful,” Deputy Election Commssioner R. Balakrishnan told reporters here, describing the violence in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra by Maoist rebels opposed to the democratic exercise as sporadic.

Even as the balloting in the first of five rounds progressed, the ruling Congress party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) traded charges, each determined to finish on top of a hung house.

Political pundits agree that no single party or coalition would win a majority in the 545-member Lok Sabha and predict fresh realignments after the millions of votes get counted May 16.

At least 19 people were killed as armed and masked cadres of the outlawed Communist Party of India-Maoist, which seeks to carry out an agrarian-based revolution, targeted polling officials and security personnel across a dozen constituencies in five states.

In Jharkhand’s Latehar area, seven personnel of the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) were killed along with their bus driver and his assistant when Maoists blasted their vehicle while they were proceeding through a forested area to a polling centre.

In neighbouring Chhattisgarh, five polling officials died when Maoists detonated a landmine in Rajnandgaon district. A paramilitary trooper was shot dead in a gun battle in the Maoist stronghold Dantewada.

In Bihar, a policeman and a Home Guard were killed when over a dozen Maoists opened fire at a polling station in Gaya district. The Election Commission put the total death toll at 19.

But despite the violence and a hot day, millions poured out of their homes in villages and towns to vote. Most polling stations saw long queues.

Election Commission official Balakrishnan said most of the Maoist strongholds were included in the first round of polling Thursday, hinting that future rounds may be more peaceful.

With an array of local and national issues casting a shadow on the Lok Sabha polls, each political party is in an aggressive mood, determined to mop up as many votes as it can.

Thursday’s polling involved 185,552 polling centres, 1,715 candidates, over 300,000 electronic voting machines and many thousands of officials as well as police and paramilitary personnel.

While all the constituencies of Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh, Andaman and Nicobar Island, Lakshwadeep and Mizoram voted, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Manipur, Orissa and Jharkhand saw partial voting.

In Andhra Pradesh, once a Maoist bastion, there was 65 percent voter turnout, 62 percent in the three parliamentary constituencies of Assam and 52-84 percent in Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast.

In violence-hit Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar, some 50 percent of the votes were cast.

Kerala, where the Congress and the Communists are locked in a straight battle, there was over 60 percent voting. It was highest in Ernakulam and surprisingly low in Thiruvananthapuram, where the Congress fielded former UN under-secretary general Shashi Tharoor.

Among the key contenders in the fray Thursday were Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, Civil Aviation Minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Praful Patel and central cabinet minister and Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury.

Both Patel and Defence Minister A.K. Antony hinted that the Congress may be in a mood to make up with the Communists, who stopped supporting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July last year over the India-US nucelar deal.

Patel said in his constituency Bhandara-Gondia in Maharashtra: “We are with the Congress as alliance partners. That does not stop us from having good relations with the Left. In fact, we may need them later.”

Antony said in Kerala: “Gone are the days of a single party ruling the country. Hence, though there are secular parties contesting against us in states, when it comes to forming a government in Delhi we will seek the support of all secular parties.”

And BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley assessed the situation: “The way the campaign progressed and looking at the voting trends in all the states where we are in strength, we are going to improve our performance.”

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