New Delhi / Guwahati: At least 110 million people cast their ballots across 12 states on Thursday in the biggest phase of a month-long general election, with heavy security cover ensuring a largely peaceful vote.
Big stakes: (from top) Voters in Bagharbori, Guwahati, on Thursday braved the rain and queued up to cast their votes; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (right) and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, hold up their ink-marked fingers after casting their votes in Guwahati on Thursday; and a woman walks past policemen at a polling booth in Panvel, around 70km from Mumbai. Photographs by PTI, Anupam Nath/AP and Arko Datta / Reuters.
Around 55% of 200 million eligible voters turned out in the second round of polling, election officials said. The electorate decided the fortunes of 2,041 candidates in the fray for 140 parliamentary seats. That compares with the 62% turnout in the 16 April balloting for 124 seats that kicked off elections to the 15th Lok Sabha.
In addition, assembly elections were held for 140 seats in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh and 77 in Biju Janata Dal-governed Orissa.
Blazing summertime temperatures touching 44 degrees Celsius in parts of Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar may have dented the voter turnout that was unexpectedly low. Tripura in the North-East had the highest voter turnout of 70-80%, and the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar the least—about 44% each. Seventeen seats in Uttar Pradesh and 13 in Bihar were up for grabs on Thursday.
“The voter turnout is not low everywhere. Wherever there has been an intense campaign and new elements, the turnout has been good,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, psephologist and chairman of New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.
“But in states like say Bihar, it has been low largely because there has hardly been any mobilization and there has been a pseudo campaign with the same old faces of politics,” he said. Indications are that there isn’t much momentum in favour of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad or Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ram Vilas Paswan, which would favour (chief minister) Nitish Kumar.
Prominent candidates in the fray on Thursday included Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar from?Madha in Maharashtra, commerce minister Kamal Nath from Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, Janata Dal (United) rebel George Fernandes from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Sushma Swaraj from Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh and LJP’s Paswan from Hajipur in Bihar.
Hundreds of thousands of police were deployed to guard against violence, but the voting was largely peaceful. A week earlier, 16 people were killed in Maoist violence in the first phase of voting.
Under armed guard, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur cast their votes in Guwahati, which was hit by a string of separatist bombs in the run-up to the polls.
Singh is the prime ministerial candidate for the Congress party, which has overseen an economic boom since coming to power in 2004. But the outlook for the next government is less rosy due to a yawning fiscal deficit just as the economy suffers a downturn.
As rain fell, long queues of people formed at polling stations in Guwahati.
“There is no cause for fear and I have come here to vote on my own,” said Biren Barua, who is in his mid-30s, waiting to cast his ballot in Guwahati.
Maoist rebels blasted a railway station and chopped down trees to block roads in Jharkhand early on Thursday. They briefly seized a train on Wednesday in a show of strength before releasing the passengers unharmed.
In Andhra Pradesh, one person was killed and at least a dozen injured in separate political clashes, police said.
The staggered voting is to allow security forces to move around the country to curb any attempt to coerce an electorate at least twice the population of the US.
The outcome of the elections will be known on 16 May. Exit polls are banned for the election.
Thursday’s is the largest round voting in terms of the electorate and constituencies. Polls for 107 seats will be held in phase III on 30 April, 85 in phase IV on 7 May and 86 in the fifth and final phase on 13 May.
Biswajyoti Das is with Reuters. AP’s Indrajeet Singh in Patna, and Mint’s Liz Mathew from Madhya Pradesh and Utpal Bhaskar from Bihar contributed to this story.