General election enters second stage

India enters the second of a five-stage general election to last until May 13. Nearly 200 million new voters are taking part in the vote.


AFP - India's marathon general election entered its second and largest phase Thursday, bringing in nearly 200 million new voters and the risk of fresh attacks by left-wing extremists.

The latest balloting stretched from the industrial state of Maharashtra in the southwest, across the heartland of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty in Uttar Pradesh, to the eastern Maoist-racked state of Bihar.

The month-long, five-stage election -- the world's largest democratic exercise -- wraps up on May 13, with the final results expected three days later.

With neither of the two main parties -- the incumbent Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- seen as capable of securing an absolute majority, the likely outcome is an unsteady coalition that would struggle to see out a full term.

The threat of extremist violence was highlighted Wednesday when Maoist guerrillas, who have vowed to disrupt the polls, briefly hijacked a train with several hundred passengers in Jharkand state, neighbouring Bihar.

The hostages were soon released, but the incident underlined the rebels' ability to strike, seemingly at will.

Maoist attacks on polling stations during the first phase of voting last week claimed at least 19 lives, including 10 paramilitary troopers and five election workers.

The Maoists, who say they are fighting for the rights of neglected tribal people and landless farmers, have been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest overall threat to national stability.

More than two million security personnel have been deployed for each stage of polling in a bid to keep the electoral process on track.

The election comes at a pivotal time for India and its 714 million electorate, with a once red-hot economy feeling the strain of the global downturn and relations with neighbouring Pakistan at a new low since the deadly Mumbai attacks in November.

But strong, decisive leadership will be difficult to provide given the splintered nature of the electorate, expected to hand up to 50 percent of the 543 seats in parliament to a plethora of local and regional parties.

For the Congress and the BJP, a realistic "victory" would mean emerging as the single largest bloc and using that to attract enough partners needed to govern.

The Congress campaign has relied heavily on the charisma of Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and, at 38, seen as a prime minister-in-waiting.

Thursday's vote includes Rahul's constituency of Amethi, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Uttar Pradesh state capital Lucknow.

Amethi has long been the seat of power of the Gandhis.

Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi -- the sons of prime minister Indira Gandhi -- as well as Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi have all represented the constituency.

Rahul Gandhi was elected in 2004 and is expected to win by a landslide this time around.

Manmohan Singh, 76, is the Congress party's official candidate for prime minister and his main challenge will come from the BJP's L.K. Advani, who is even older at 81.

After five successive years of near-double-digit growth which lent the country the international clout it has long sought, the Indian economy has been badly hit by the global downturn.

India's fiscal deficit for the last financial year was six percent of GDP -- more than double the target -- and 11 percent if the deficits of regional state governments are included.

And there are major security concerns over growing regional instability, particularly arch-rival Pakistan, where the growing influence of the Taliban has been watched from New Delhi with increasing alarm.

Polling stations opened Thursday at 7:00am (0130 GMT), with voting in most districts scheduled to end at 5:00pm.

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