New Delhi: Ballots and bullets—that was the big story on the first day of voting in the country’s 15th general election.
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Voter turnout on Thursday varied between 46% and 86%, on a day when Maoist guerrilas sought to disrupt polls in several central Indian states through audacious attacks, serving a grim reminder of the internal security threats facing the country.
On the same day, Varun Gandhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate from Pilibhit, walked out of Etah jail, where he was imprisoned for his inflammatory remarks against Muslims, which led to the sharp communal polarization that is believed to be taking place in Uttar Pradesh. His return to active campaigning is expected to revive the BJP’s morale ahead of the next phase of polling in Uttar Pradesh, and also draw comparison with his cousin and political rival Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress party.
The election, which is largely expected to result in a hung Parliament, takes place against the backdrop of an unprecedented global economic crisis that has already crippled the US, Europe and Japan. If, indeed, a stable coalition cannot be cobbled together at the end of the five-phase elections, the ability of the next government to manage an economy threatened by global recession and weak public finances will be limited.
Securing the vote: People line up to cast their votes as security personnel stand guard at a polling booth in Madangundi village, near Ranchi. Reuters
Amid the threat of a poll boycott by extremist groups and Maoist rebels in some states, voting began on Thursday morning in 124 constituencies across 17 states. The day-long polling witnessed a series of attacks by Naxalite groups in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, killing 18 people, including five poll officials and 10 security personnel.
The remaining constituencies will vote on 23 and 30 April, and 7 and 13 May. The counting will take place on 16 May.
The Election Commission (EC), the independent body that conducts elections in the country, said polling was peaceful except in areas affected by Naxalite attacks.
Bihar, where 13 of the total 40 constituencies went for polls, and Orissa (10 of 21) also saw violent attacks on voters and polling booths by the rebels. Orissa and Andhra Pradesh (where 22 of 42 constituencies voted on Thursday) also voted to elect their respective state assemblies.
In Jammu and Kashmir, where separatists had called for a poll boycott, voting in its winter capital Jammu took place amid heavy deployment of army troops, paramilitary personnel and police forces.
The voter turnout, provisionally estimated by EC, in states is: Chhattisgarh (51%), Jharkhand (50%), Orissa (53%), Uttar Pradesh (48%), Assam (62%), Andhra Pradesh (65%), Arunachal Pradesh (62%), Bihar (46%), Jammu and Kashmir (48%) , Kerala (60%), Manipur (66%), Maharashtra (54%) Meghalaya (68%), Mizoram (52%), Nagaland (84%), Lakshadweep (86%) and Andaman and Nicobar Islands (62%).
In Orissa’s Kandhamal district, which witnessed bloody communal violence against minority Christian communities last year, polling was at 65%, EC said.
The overall voter turnout in the country in 2004 was 58.07%.
Alleging that Dalits and the poor were prevented from voting in his Saran constituency in Bihar, Railway minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad demanded repolling in many booths.
Although the BJP is hoping to cash in on the so-called polarization in Uttar Pradesh, the low voter turnout, provisionally estimated at the end of the first phase, does not augur well for the party. This is because the minorities tend to vote in blocks and can be offset only by a high voter turnout.
B.G. Varghese, political analyst and visiting professor at think tank Centre for Policy Research, said, “Average voter percentage can be deceptive. One has to see which constituency registered lower turnout and what were the reasons.”
PTI contributed to this story.