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Millions hit the polls as India's month-long elections begin

IN tiny villages and sprawling concrete cities, tens of millions of Indians voted yesterday at the start of a month-long process expected to yield no clear winner as this Asian giant grapples with global economic malaise.

The vote is the first of five phases in which 714 million people will be eligible to cast ballots. More than 140 million had the chance yesterday.

There were scattered reports of violence by guerrillas, including six soldiers killed yesterday morning in the eastern state of Jharkhand and three election officials kidnapped, but authorities were hoping for a strong turnout even in India's most troubled region.

"People want democracy to triumph," said Tarun Gogoi, the top official in the insurgency-wracked northeastern state of Assam.

In an 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 yesterday morning at a neighborhood polling station. The guerrillas, who are fighting for an Assamese homeland, said voters should boycott the election.

"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 that it slowed as noon approached - bringing scorching temperatures that hit 41 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country.

"The heat is keeping people indoors and preventing them from voting," said Lala Pandey, a voter in the town of Gaya in eastern Bihar state.

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 on May 16.

But few expect a clear mandate from Indian voters after a lackluster campaign that has been devoid of a central issue, mirroring a country fragmented by differences of region, religion and caste.

Polls indicate neither the Congress Party, which leads the 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. That means the elections will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government.

Yesterday 124 seats in the lower house were up for grabs.

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.

The main opposition party also is in disarray. Its leadership is aging and fragmented, its anti-terror 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.

The two main parties also have seen their support eroded by regional parties focused on local issues or on particular castes in the country's complex Hindu social system.


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