GUWAHATI, India - Millions of Indians, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, voted peacefully on Thursday in the second stage of a month-long general election that could throw up a weak coalition.
Hundreds of thousands of police guarded some 200 million eligible voters across swathes of central and southern India, but no major violence was reported. A week earlier, 16 people were killed in Maoist violence in the first phase of voting.
The ruling Congress party-led coalition appears to lead against an alliance headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but both may need the support of a host of smaller regional parties to win office.
Under armed guard, Singh cast his vote in Guwahati, the principal city of the northeastern state of Assam which was hit by a string of separatist bombs in the run up to the election.
Singh is the prime ministerial candidate for the Congress party, which has overseen an economic boom since coming to power in 2004. But the outlook for the next government is less rosy due to a yawning fiscal deficit just as the economy suffers a downturn.
There is also speculation that a group of smaller parties known as the Third Front, who are often seen as opportunist and an unknown quantity in government, could spoil the chances of the BJP or Congress.
At least 55 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots on Thursday, election officials said, compared with 62 percent in the first phase last week
The second round of polling, the biggest of the five phases, involved people from India's rural heartland, the IT center of Bangalore and some states where Maoist rebels are strong.
As rain fell, long queues of people formed at polling stations in Guwahati.
There is no cause for fear and I have come here to vote on my own, said Biren Barua, a mid-30s voter who waited to cast his ballot in Guwahati.
The rebels blasted a railway station and chopped down trees to block roads in the eastern state of Jharkhand early on Thursday. They briefly seized a train on Wednesday in a show of strength before releasing the passengers unharmed.
In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, one person was killed and at least a dozen injured in separate political clashes, police said.
The staggered voting is to allow security forces to move around the country to curb any attempt to coerce an electorate more than twice the population of the United States.
The outcome of the election will be known on May 16. India's elections are notoriously hard to predict and polls have been wrong in the past. Exit polls are banned for the election.
An array of castes, religions and ethnicities comprise the 714 million eligible voters in the world's largest democratic exercise, where ancient ties still play a large role at the ballot box.
There is no single national issue in this election and the campaigning has been marked by personal attacks and rhetoric. Parties are wooing voters with populist measures such as food subsidies and a promise of better governance and security.