NEW DELHI -- Undeterred by kidnappings, deadly rebel attacks and 113-degree heat, Indians cast ballots yesterday in the first day of three-week parliamentary elections that are expected to return the prime minister's governing coalition to power.
Rebels from the disputed province of Kashmir to India's isolated northeast have promised to sabotage the vote, a gigantic undertaking in the world's largest democracy. Violence across the country killed 15 people and wounded 18.
Still, attacks are relatively routine during Indian elections -- at least 100 people died in the last national poll in 1999. Voters appeared ready to reward Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the booming economy and efforts that have made prospects for peace with rival Pakistan their best in years.
"I came to vote because I wanted to recognize the good work done by the government," said Mohanlal Pashan, 70, a retired state employee in Bangalore, India's information technology hub. "For me, the most important issue is economic progress."
The massive election will be staggered in five phases over three weeks ending May 10 to accommodate the country's 660 million voters, with counting to begin three days later. Voter turnout yesterday was 50 percent to 55 percent, according to the Election Commission.
About 400,000 police and troops were deployed to protect candidates, voters and poll workers, and air force helicopters patrolled some of the more threatened districts.
Opinion polls have predicted Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance would return to power, but his party was not expected to win an outright majority and could even lose a few seats.
The opposition Congress party, which headed India for nearly four straight decades under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, faces an uphill battle. Congress claims India's rural poor have been left behind by the government's push for economic growth.
Islamic militants opposed to India's control over portions of Kashmir were blamed for fatally shooting a paramilitary soldier guarding a polling station and a separate bomb attack in the region that wounded six civilians, including two poll workers.
The militants say the elections legitimize what they see as India's occupation of the Himalayan region, and they have threatened attacks on anyone participating in the polls.
A car filled with Indian journalists and human rights activists on their way to monitor polling stations exploded when it ran over a land mine in Kashmir. The driver and a human rights activist -- Asiya Geelani of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons -- were killed and four others were wounded.
Maoist rebels have ordered an election boycott in the isolated northeastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar. Two suspected Maoist rebels, a national guard reservist, two police officers, a voter, polling agent and a magistrate were killed and four officers and a voter wounded in election-related violence in the two states.
In Manipur, another restive northeastern state where the outlawed United National Liberation Front threatened voters with "dire consequences" if they went to the polls, rebels took electronic voting machines from polling centers yesterday. Militants also kidnapped 30 polling officials, according to P. Doungel, a deputy with the Manipur police.
For the first time, electronic voting machines were being used in India. Election officials transported about 1 million computerized voting machines to 188,975 sites, some in deserts, remote hilltops or Himalayan valleys.
"I am excited that I am not lagging behind but also operating a modern machine," said farmer Babul Deka in the northeastern state of Assam.
But the machines developed problems in some parts of the country, forcing voting to be suspended briefly.