Indian voters cast their ballots in round one of parliamentary elections on Thursday amid Maoist violence that left at least 17 dead.
In the first of five phases, over 140 million people voted in large swathes of northern and eastern India, including impoverished rural areas affected by violent insurgencies.
In Jharkhand state, rebels ambushed a bus carrying security forces for duty at polling stations, killing seven soldiers and two civilians.
In neighbouring Chattisgarh state, Maoist commandos blew up a jeep carrying election officials, killing five, while several serious gun battles were also reported to be raging in two Chattisgarh districts.
And in Bihar state, two security personnel were shot dead and another wounded by Maoists in Gaya district.
Results of the massive election, which will use more than 1.3 million electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling stations, are expected to be announced on May 16.
Polls indicate that neither the governing Congress party nor the Hindu chauvinist BJP will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of parliament to rule on their own.
Congress, which is ending a five-year stint in power, has seen its main achievement – India’s economic growth, which has averaged more than 8 per cent in recent years – hit by the global economic crisis.
It has also faced severe criticism for its handling of the Mumbai terror attack in November, when 10 gunmen rampaged through the city for three days, killing 164 people.
The BJP is in disarray. Its leadership is fragmented, its anti-terror line was criticised as too harsh after the Mumbai attacks and it has been blamed for stoking tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities.
A new progressive grouping of left-wing and regional parties running under the Third Front banner is widely seen as the only viable alternative.
The powerful Communist Party of India (Marxist), which helped forge the Third Front, has ruled out any alliance with Congress after the elections and was optimistic that the progressive coalition will emerge as a decisive force.
CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat said: ‘We expect a realignment of political forces in the post-poll scenario.
‘The Third Front will emerge as the largest combination and there is no question of having any understanding or alliance with the Congress party.’
The Third Front is negotiating with Mayawati Kumari, a self-styled champion of the lower castes who hopes to become India’s first prime minister from the ‘untouchable’ Dalit caste.