Attacks and floods on agenda as Mumbai votes

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The Independent Online

Terrorism was on the top of the agenda today as the people of Mumbai voted in India's monthlong elections under the shadow of the deadly attack that rocked the country's financial capital.

The vote was the third of five phases of polling that ends on 13 May, and results are expected on 16 May. With more than 700 million voters, India normally holds staggered elections for logistical and security reasons.

Among the regions voting in this round was Mumbai, bringing terrorism to the head of the national debate after an election campaign dominated by local issues, caste, and religion.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of the governing Congress party, sought to defend her party's handling of the attack and a string of others that have hit India in the five years of Congress rule.

"We don't require any certificate from anyone to prove our stand against terrorism," she told an election rally in New Delhi. Indian law bars politicians from campaigning in voting areas on the day of the polls.

Gandhi said the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, should not criticize Congress for being soft on terror, recalling the BJP's decision to negotiate with hijackers of an Indian airliner during their earlier stint in power and release 3 senior militants to secure the release of the hostages.

Some voters, however, said they woul hold the government accountable for the attack.

"We need a change as the present government has failed to provide protection to the people," said Sachin Dhangi, a 35-year-old salesman.

For others, India's long-standing battle with poverty remained their top concern.

Sameer Singade, 32, a resident of one of Mumbai's sprawling slums — which gained prominence in the Oscar winning "Slumdog Millionaire — said he had voted for a new party formed by a firebrand local politician Raj Thackeray "in the hope that it will do something for the poor people."

Thackeray has made his name as a xenophobic, rabble-rousing politician championing the Marathi language and the rights of residents of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital.

The fragmented debate in this country of nearly 1.2 billion people has ensured that neither of the two national parties has been able to dominate the elections.

Polls indicate neither Congress, nor the main opposition BJP, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own.

That means the election will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government cobbled together from across the political spectrum — a situation giving the next prime minister little time to deal with a growing number of challenges like the economic crisis.

Local issues remained key in other areas. In northern Bihar state, the voting was dominated by the devastating floods that left millions homeless in October when the Kosi river burst its banks and shifted course.

"The Kosi flood has washed away divides on caste and community lines," said Gajendra Yadav, 38, a voter in Madhepura, one of the districts worst hit by the floods. "Everyone, Hindu or Muslim want a solution to the Kosi floods."

The first two rounds of voting were marred by violence from communist rebels. However, this was not expected to be a factor Thursday as most of the insurgency-affected areas have completed their voting.

There was heavy security in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where separatists urged residents to boycott elections and called for a general strike and demonstrations.

Anti-India sentiment runs deep in mainly Muslim Kashmir, where most people favor independence from India or a merger with Pakistan. Kashmir is divided between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, who both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two wars over it.