India begins voting in marathon election

NEW DELHI, April 16, 2009 (AFP) – Indians voted in their tens of millions Thursday as month-long general elections — the world’s largest democratic exercise — kicked off with little hope of a clear winner at the end of it all. From the southern tropical state of Kerala to the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir in the north, voters cast their ballots at the start of a five-stage process so spread out that six million civil and security personnel are needed to keep it on track.

Neither the ruling Congress party nor its main rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is expected to win outright when voting wraps up on May 13, setting the stage for some old-fashioned political horse-trading to build a coalition that can govern India’s one billion people.

The vote comes at a pivotal time for India, with the 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.

Domestic security concerns were highlighted soon after polling opened Thursday when Maoist rebels launched attacks in several eastern states, killing at least 16 people, including nine paramilitary troopers and five election workers.

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