OLD DELHI, INDIA
A HALF billion Indians continue voting May 23 in modern India's most violent and pivotal poll. The three-day election began May 20 amid a light turnout and violent flare-ups across crucial north Indian states. At least 50 people were killed as voting fraud marred the poll and religious strife between Hindus and Muslims erupted in two volatile states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Voting was suspended in five districts and was expected to be rescheduled. Worst hit was Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, where about 20 people died in clashes between rival political gangs.
The high-stakes contest is testing the clout of hard-line Hindus led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP wants to end special protections for Muslims and other minorities in this largely Hindu nation. And the religious appeal of the BJP is challenging the country's traditional separation of religion and government.
Also in the fray are two political forces headed by two former prime ministers: the centrist Congress (I) Party of Rajiv Gandhi and a left-wing alliance headed by V. P. Singh.
Standing outside a polling station in the crowded old section of Delhi, Ali Khan, a Muslim laborer, said he and other members of the large Muslim minority group feel threatened by an expected strong showing of the BJP.
"The BJP will break India up into pieces," says Mr. Khan, after he casts his vote for Mr. Singh's Janata Dal Party, which is trying to forge a power base among Muslims and lower-caste and casteless Hindus.
This week's election, which ends May 26, will fill 537 parliamentary seats and five state assemblies, and has capped a turbulent campaign in which dozens of people were killed.
An unprecedented security cordon of 1 million troops has been sent to polling stations around India in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to stop the violence, which analysts say could make the election India's most bloody since independence from Britain in 1947.
The poll, the first held during the brutal subcontinent summer, has been met with widespread apathy and disillusionment. Inter-party squabbling has stymied decisionmaking in India at a time of political and economic crisis. "After these elections, these politicians will never come here," says Banwari Lal, a shopkeeper who said he wasn't voting. "If you went to look for a politician, you couldn't find one."