Some 137 seats were up for grabs in 11 states from restive Indian-administered Kashmir to the pivotal Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh – where Rahul Gandhi, standard-bearer of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was standing – to Maharashtra state, home to the financial capital, Mumbai (formerly Bombay).
But there were few voters in many polling booths in Maharashtra, where Monday was declared a public holiday for the third leg of the five-round election in the nation of more than one billion people that winds up 10 May.
Turnout across India’s second most populous state was only 15% by midday and just 13% in Mumbai, said election officer Ravi Bhargav.
Many seemed to have used the long weekend to go away or relax at home.
“In my family, there are six voters but only two have voted including me,” said Mumbai businessman Dharmendra Jain, adding the others went on a trip to their home state of Rajasthan.
Officials had hoped the lure of using electronic polling machines instead of ballot papers for the first time might boost turnout in the election in which about 670 million people were eligible to vote.
Others in Mumbai and elsewhere in India found their names missing from poll lists.
“What’s the point of coming to vote when I find my five-member family’s name missing from the list?” complained Mumbai housewife Indira Ghatge, 66.
Scorching temperatures also kept many from voting in the third phase, with polling taking place in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that together send 120 members to the 545-seat parliament.
Exit polls since voting began on 20 April have shown a lead for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Hindu nationalist-led coalition over its main rival, the Congress, but by a slimmer margin than forecast before the start of the polling that began on 20 April.
The political debut of Rahul Gandhi for Congress, carrying the legacy of the family that gave India three prime ministers, whipped up excitement in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state.
In the neighbouring Bihar state, known as India’s wild west, the Press Trust of India reported several incidents of “booth capturing” in which gangs seized polling stations to vote for their favourite candidates.
Voter turnout was sparse in Indian-administered Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar, after attacks and a boycott call by separatists.
But there was a better turnout at some voting stations in outlying Budgam, Kangan and Sonamarg, which form part of the Srinagar constituency, election officials said.
Troops were on high alert at the 1080 polling stations in the constituency, one of six in Indian Kashmir, but the only one where balloting was taking place on Monday.
Indian security forces have
A general strike called by separatists emptied Srinagar, a city of 1.2 million people, of traffic and shut businesses and shops as security forces patrolled the streets.
Both separatists and armed fighters have called for a poll boycott, saying the elections would not resolve the 15-year-old revolt.
In the first nine hours of voting, just 62 of about 1143 eligible voters had turned out at Srinagar’s Sonawar polling station to vote, among them the family of Umar Abd Allah, head of the region’s main opposition National Conference.
While there was as little sign of voter activity at other polling stations in Srinagar city, better participation in the outlying areas had boosted the overall turnout to 15% by mid-afternoon, an increase on the 12% recorded in the last parliamentary polls in 1999, election officials said.
In the lead-up to Monday’s vote, there were a spate of attacks on political rallies and party workers in the Himalayan territory, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both.
Mahbuba Mufti, head of Kashmir’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), had a narrow escape on Sunday when suspected insurgents hurled a grenade at her motorcade in Kulgam, near Srinagar. The grenade missed her, but killed three people and wounded 46.
In Srinagar on Monday, police said they defused a bomb near a voting station, while a girl was injured when a grenade hurled at a polling booth missed the target and hit her house in Budgam.
India has sent 7000 extra forces for the vote to support 65,000 troops already in Kashmir to battle the revolt that has killed tens of thousands.