Rebels shot dead five people at a polling station in India’s northeast on Saturday as voting began in the first of five local elections seen as a popularity test for the national Congress government. The separatist rebels sprayed the voting booth with bullets, killing three election officials, a paramilitary trooper and a civilian in Thangpi, a village south of Manipur state capital Imphal, police chief Priya Singh said. “The militants opened random fire,” Singh told AFP, adding two other people were hurt in the attack which came despite tens of thousands of security forces deployed in a bid to thwart attacks during the voting for a new assembly. The rebels who staged the attack on the crowded polling booth in far-flung Manipur were believed to be from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Singh said, but added no group had claimed responsibility. The voting in Manipur was the first of five assembly elections viewed as a mini-referendum for Premier Manmohan Singh’s embattled Congress coalition which is at the centre of a storm of corruption and mismanagement scandals. National polls are due in 2014. Tensions were already elevated in impoverished Manipur after five explosions in the run-up to the polls killed two people, along with rebel calls for a boycott of the election, police said. India’s northeast has been wracked by deadly separatist insurgencies since the country’s independence in 1947. At least 30 ethnic rebel groups are active in highly militarised Manipur, a state of just 2.7 million people. The voting in the states of Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa is being staggered through February and early March with the results to be announced in early March. While regional issues will weigh heavily in the five elections, the polls are putting to the test not only the standing of Congress but also of 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi, tipped as a future prime minister. Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has dominated India for most of its post-independence history, has taken centre stage during campaigning for the elections. Next weekend’s elections take place in caste-riven Uttar Pradesh which traditionally influences the formation of the national government and where Gandhi has been focusing his campaigning energies. The pivotal state of 200 million people, governed by the mercurial chief minister Mayawati — known as India’s “Dalit Queen” — will send 80 members to the 552-seat parliament in the next national elections in 2014. Mayawati, who comes from an “untouchable” or Dalit community on the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, has built up a reputation as a populist leader who taps into massive support among low-caste Indians, who are often marginalised. Congress is not tipped to win in Uttar Pradesh, but if the bachelor Gandhi can improve on his party’s woeful performance in the last elections in 2007, he can look forward to a shot of “political Viagra,” said analyst Uday Bhaskar. But the party is expected by some commentators to regain power in the key agricultural heartland of Punjab and the mountainous state of Uttarakhand. Congress is also seen as virtually certain to extend its rule in Manipur after winning all but one election there since 1984. The fifth region in play is Goa, the coastal resort where Congress has long been dominant and where it is currently holds power in a coalition.
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