GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) - Millions of Indians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, voted peacefully on Thursday in the second stage of a month-long general election that could produce a weak coalition government.
Hundreds of thousands of police guarded some 200 million eligible voters across swathes of central and southern India.
A week earlier, 16 people were killed in Maoist violence in the first phase of voting.
The ruling Congress party-led coalition appears to lead against an alliance headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but both may need the support of regional parties to form a government.
Under armed guard, Singh cast his vote in Guwahati, the principal city of the northeastern state of Assam which was hit by a string of separatist bombs in the run up to the election.
Singh is the prime ministerial candidate for the Congress party, which has overseen an economic boom since coming to power in 2004. The outlook for the next government is less rosy due to a growing fiscal deficit as the economy suffers a downturn.
There is speculation a group of smaller parties known as the “Third Front,” seen as opportunist and an unknown quantity in government, could spoil the chances of the BJP or Congress.
At least 55 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots on Thursday, election officials said, compared with 62 percent in the first phase last week.
The second round, the biggest of the five phases, involved people from India’s rural heartland, the high tech center of Bangalore and some states where Maoist rebels are strong.
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,” Biren Barua, a voter in his 30s, said as he waited to cast his ballot in Guwahati.
Rebels attacked a railway station and chopped down trees to block roads in the eastern state of Jharkhand early on Thursday. They briefly seized a train on Wednesday in a show of strength before releasing the passengers unharmed.
Late on Thursday, Maoist rebels set off a land mine in the eastern state of Bihar, killing five policemen escorting a poll party, and wounding six other policemen, officials said.
In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, one person was killed and at least a dozen injured in separate political clashes, police said.
In Tamil Nadu state, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, an ally of India’s ruling coalition, called a 12-hour strike. Experts said it was an attempt to garner votes with a show of sympathy for embattled Tamils in Sri Lanka, which lies across a strait of water, ahead of polling in the state next month.
The staggered voting is to allow security forces to circulate to curb attempts to coerce an electorate more than twice the population of the United States.
Election results will be known on May 16. India’s elections are notoriously hard to predict and polls have been wrong in the past. Exit polls are banned.
An array of castes, religions and ethnicities comprise the 714 million eligible voters in the world’s largest democratic exercise, where ancient ties play a large role at the ballot box.
There is no single national issue in this election and the campaigning has been marked by personal attacks and rhetoric. Parties are wooing voters with populist measures such as food subsidies and a promise of better governance and security.
Additional reporting by Reuters correspondents across India; Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Michael Roddy