Maoist rebels attacked polling stations and targeted election officials Thursday as millions of Indians voted in the first phase of the country's general elections.
At least 19 people were killed, including 10 paramilitary troopers and five election workers, despite heavy security. Violence was reported in the eastern states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Deputy National Election Commissioner R. Balakrishnan said only 86 polling stations were affected, a small fraction of the total.
Thursday's voting was the first of five phases in what is being called the world's largest exercise in democracy. Some 700 million people are eligible to vote for candidates to fill India's 543-member lower house of parliament. Voting is scheduled to end on May 13th and the results are to be announced on May 16th.
Analysts predict this year's vote will be more fragmented, raising the importance of smaller parties who will be needed to form a governing coalition.Neither of India's two main national parties -- the ruling Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- are expected to secure an absolute majority in the vote. Both have campaigned on promises of improving the lives of India's poor.
Also Thursday, India's Supreme Court released on bail opposition candidate Varun Gandhi, who was detained last month on charges of inciting anger against Muslims during campaigning.Gandhi, a member of India's most famous political family, was released on the condition that he refrain from making provocative speeches.