Election 2009 begins in India, but leaves a trail of violence (Afternoon Lead)

New Delhi, April 16 (Inditop) The world’s largest democratic exercise to vote in a new government began in India Thursday with voters queuing up in 17 states and union territories in the first phase of staggered elections marred by Maoist violence that left at least 17 people dead.

Election 2009 started at 7 a.m. as Indians voted in 124 constituencies to pick a new 545-seat Lok Sabha in an exercise widely expected to throw up a split verdict.

About 143 million of India’s 714 million voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in the first of five rounds in 185,552 polling centres. A total of 1,715 candidates are in the fray, and over 300,000 electronic voting machines are being used.

Tens of thousands of election staff and security personnel kept vigil to ensure a smooth poll in Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Chhattisgarh, Andaman and Nicobar Island and Lakshwadeep that saw voting in all constituencies. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Manipur, Orissa and Jharkhand saw partial voting.

But it was a bloody start to the ambitious exercise with Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Maharashtra seeing violence and intimidation as Maoist guerrillas tried to implement their election boycott in a hail of bullets and bomb blasts.

At least 17 people were killed as 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 the insurgency hit states.

Landmine blasts in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand saw at least 14 people getting killed. In Jharkhand’s Latehar area, seven Border Security Force (BSF) personnel and two others heading to an election centre were killed when their bus was blown up.

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

In adjoining Bihar, a policeman and a Home Guard were killed when over a dozen Maoists opened fire at a polling station in Gaya district.

Reports of gun battles, booths being raided, voters being attacked and electronic voting machines being torched came in from several places in the affected states.

The impact could be seen in the low voter turnout. In Jharkhand, polling was as low as nine percent till 11 a.m. in Chhatra constituency though it was higher in the more peaceful seats (17-21 percent).

In Andhra Pradesh, it was 13 percent; in Maharashtra, a little better at 17.14 percent and in Uttar Pradesh 17 percent till 12 noon.

But it was in states like Kerala, where elections for all the 20 seats were held, that voters came out unhindered to exercise their franchise. In the first three hours of polling, 20 percent voters had voted.

With 124 of 543 seats going to the polls, the day is decisive for the main political parties battling for power with several key leaders in the fray.

One of them is Congress’ Renuka Chowdhury, also the women and child welfare minister, fighting to get back to parliament from the Khammam seat in Andhra Pradesh.

Cabinet minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Civil Aviation Minister Praful 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. We have a pre-poll alliance with the Congress, so there is no question of not having good relations with them.”

At the end of the day, it was all about the struggle to reach the coveted seat of power in Delhi.

As Defence Minister and Congress leader A.K. Antony said: “Gone are the days of a single party ruling the country. Hence, even 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.”

The exercise was also about the people and their determination to vote no matter what.

Like Kamla Devi, 102, who came to vote at Gurah Brahamana in Jammu region. It was the 20th time she was doing so and the canny voter refused to disclose who she had supported.

But all will be told on May 16 when the millions of votes will be counted.