By MUNEEZA NAQVI / AP WRITER
NEW DELHI — In tiny villages and sprawling concrete cities, tens of millions of Indians voted Thursday at the start of a monthlong process expected to yield no clear winner as this Asian giant grapples with global economic malaise.
The vote is the first of five phases in which some 714 million people—more than twice the population of the United States—will be eligible to cast ballots. More than 140 million were eligible to vote Thursday.
There were scattered reports of violence by Maoist guerrillas, including six soldiers killed Thursday morning in the eastern state of Jharkhand and three election officials kidnapped, but officials were hoping for a strong turnout even in India's most troubled region.
"People want democracy to triumph," said Tarun Gogoi, the top official in the insurgency-wracked northeastern state of Assam.
In an isolated Assamese town, set amid one of the state's most violent regions, 30-year-old homemaker Monalisa Bordoloi Chakravarty was among hundreds of people lining up Thursday morning at a neighborhood polling station. The guerrillas, who are fighting for an ethnic Assamese homeland, insist voters should boycott the election.
"I am aware of the threat by militants but one can't stay at home out of fear," she said.
With more than 1.2 billion citizens, India normally holds staggered elections for logistical and security reasons.
Results of the massive election, which will use more than 1.3 million electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling stations, are expected May 16.
But few expect a clear mandate from Indian voters after a lackluster campaign that has been devoid of a central issue, mirroring a country fragmented by differences of region, religion and caste.
Polls indicate neither the Congress party, which leads the governing coalition, nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own. That means the elections will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government.
On Thursday, 124 seats in the lower house were up for grabs.
Congress, which is ending a five-year stint in power, has seen its main achievement—India's spectacular economic growth, which has averaged more than 8 percent in recent years—hit by the global economic crisis.
It also has faced severe criticism for the bungled handling of the Mumbai terror attack in November, when 10 gunmen rampaged through the city for three days, killing 166 people.
The BJP also is in disarray. Its leadership is aging and fragmented, its anti-terror line was criticized as too harsh in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, and it has been blamed for stoking tensions between India's Hindu majority and large Muslim minority.
The two main parties also have seen their support eroded by regional parties focused on local issues or on particular castes in the country's complex Hindu social system.
The first phase included central and eastern states battered by attacks by Maoist militants, leading to the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and police.
Early Thursday, suspected rebels triggered a land mine, killing six paramilitary soldiers patrolling in the eastern state of Jharkhand, police said.
Reinforcements were sent to secure the area in Latehar, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Ranchi, the state capital, superintendent of police Hemant Topo said.
Elsewhere in the state, three election officials were kidnapped by the rebels, state police spokesman S.N. Pradhan said, adding that there were no other details from the remote area.
In the neighboring state of Bihar, suspected rebels attacked a polling station in Gaya district, killing two security officials, the area's Deputy Inspector General Anupama Nilokar said.
The guerrillas, known as Naxalites, have fought the government for decades in a handful of rural regions, charging authorities with plundering natural resources while providing little to local residents. Since Saturday, nearly 20 police officers have died in their attacks.