New Delhi: The stars trooped out and so did villagers on Thursday as millions of poor and the affluent voted in the third leg of the General Elections that even veteran politicians admitted was destined to give the country another coalition government.
Voters queued up outside some 165,000 polling centres in 107 Lok Sabha seats spread across nine states and two union territories in a 10-hour exercise, during which both the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed they would finish on top of a fractured house.
A whopping 144 million voters - of the country's total 714 million - are eligible to vote on Thursday.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi and BJP prime ministerial candidate L K Advani are among the 1,567 candidates contesting in the third round of polling that will wrap up 372 Lok Sabha seats, leaving two more rounds to go May 7 and 13. The millions of votes will be counted May 16.
Other notable candidates are former prime minister H D Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S), Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), Communist Party of India's Gurudas Dasgupta and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh of the BJP.
Even as men and women stood in winding queues in urban and rural areas, overseen by armed security personnel, M Venkaiah Naidu of the BJP and Jayanti Natarajan of the Congress admitted that no single party would get a majority in the Lok Sabha.
"It is going to be a coalition. It is very clear," Naidu said after five hours of voting, echoing a point made by all political pundits even before campaigning got underway in March.
But that did not prevent Advani from claiming that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was confident of ending five years of governance by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
"I am sure the BJP will emerge as the single largest party and NDA as the biggest coalition in the Lok Sabha will form the government," he said after voting at Shahpur in Gujarat's Ahmedabad (West) constituency.
One of India's most experienced parliamentarians, Advani also sought an amendment in the constitution so that the the Lok Sabha and state assemblies do not get dissolved before five years.
Sonia Gandhi, who is also the UPA Chairperson, is contesting from Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh.
The third round of polling covers the whole or part of Bihar, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, West Bengal, Dadar and Nagar Haveli, and Daman and Diu.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) President and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati was among the first voters in Lucknow, the state capital, and she claimed her party would bag most of the state's 80 Lok Sabha seats.
"I have begun my day with voting, which I have always felt is everyone's prime duty," she said.
Bollywood stars and industrialists turned out in large numbers to vote in Mumbai, India's movie and financial capital.
Early voters in Mumbai's Bandra constituency included Sonam Kapoor, Rahul Bose, Sushma Reddy, Amrita Rao, Sonali Bendre, Aamir Khan and several television stars. Ace criminal lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani voted in Mumbai's North-Central Lok Sabha seat.
In stark contrast to Mumbai's glamour and glitz, scores of impoverished tribals voted in Palghar, barely 100 km away.
"We appeal to voters to come out and vote in large numbers," Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray said in Mumbai. "If we don't vote today, we will regret it for five years."
Polling began on a dull note but picked up in Anantnag in the Kashmir Valley to reach almost 12 per cent till 11 a.m., notwithstanding a boycott call given by the separatist Hurriyat Conference. The separatists have called for a 50-hour strike to coincide with the polls.
The voting was largely peaceful across the country. However, Maoist guerrillas exploded a landmine in West Bengal's Purulia district, injuring a paramilitary trooper.
- THE BIGGIES
- L K Advani | Sonia Gandhi | H D Deve Gowda
- Milind Deora | Mallika Sarabhai | Sanjay Nirupam
- Priya Dutt | Jyotiraditya Scinida | Jaswant Singh