By the time 161 million voters went to the polls across India today, the name "Kargil" had been uttered ad nauseam by parliamentary candidates who hoped to capitalize on the patriotic fervor that greeted India's military victory in July over Pakistan-based fighters in the Kargil mountains.
But for voters in this remote border region, who have faced years of Pakistani shelling and Indian neglect as well as two months of battle, the sudden glory linked to their home district brought another kind of electoral opportunity: the hope that, finally, the political establishment in New Delhi will focus on their plight.
"Kargil is being highlighted so much in the news, but we are lagging behind in so many ways, and we have been ignored for so long. This is our chance to make our voices heard so we can move forward fast," said Mohammad Husain, a recent college graduate who was voting for the first time.
Today marks the first round of a five-part election for 543 seats in the lower house of India's Parliament. Over the next month, 600 million people are expected to vote. Vote-counting begins on Oct. 6. A new legislature and prime minister will take office in October.
Election officials said that although five people were reported killed and several others injured in polling place incidents in Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh state, the day's polling went smoothly, with a 55 percent average turnout.
For most Indian voters, the major issues are government stability and national security, and the triumph in Kargil has given a hefty boost to the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. For the people of Kargil, however, the most urgent issue is how to end the near daily shelling from across the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani Kashmir. Many voters were angry that the country was celebrating the successful end to the Kargil conflict while they still face the danger, hardship and dislocation caused by artillery fire.
"When Pakistan was shelling the barren hills, all of India rose up in a fire of resentment, but what about us? We are still caught between the mortar and the pestle," complained shopkeeper Mohammad Subhan.
District officials had feared that Pakistan would heavily target Kargil on election day, and they shifted seven of 186 polling stations to safer locations. But not one shell was fired from across the peak, and voters were visibly relaxed and enthusiastic as they waited in long lines.
The polls were jammed by midmorning, and people pushed and shoved in their eagerness to vote. Police officers shoved back, brandishing wooden lathi sticks. But when a little girl guided her blind grandfather into a gymnasium to vote, everyone stood aside smiling.
"We are a part of India and today we are voting for our country, not just a person or a party," said Mohammad Qasim, a high school principal.
Many voters said they planned to vote for a retired local police official named Ghulam Hasan Khan, the candidate from the regional ruling National Conference party. They described him as an educated, well-spoken man who had promised to do his best to win them economic aid and relief from Pakistani attacks.
The apparent faith of Kargil's largely Muslim population in democracy in predominantly Hindu India stood in sharp contrast to the electoral scene in Srinagar, the Kashmiri city 150 miles west that is the nerve center of Muslim separatist politics.
Voter turnout in Kargil was 75 percent, among the highest in the nation, but only 12 percent voted in Srinagar, largely because separatist groups had boycotted the election and demanded a referendum on Kashmiri independence instead. At many polling places, not a single vote was cast.
One violent incident was reported in Kashmir. At least one civilian was killed and five were injured during an anti-election protest in the village of Beerwa, 22 miles northwest of Srinagar, when the angry crowd assaulted a politician, and his bodyguard opened fire. More than 20,000 police and soldiers patrolled the city and surrounding area, and no other violence was reported.
Speaking to reporters late today in New Delhi, election commissioner M.S. Gill called the low turnout in Srinagar "a message for the political establishment." He said the government's chief concern was ensuring a clean and safe election, and that the relatively incident-free polling in Kashmir showed that "the democratic process is still going on in spite of the difficult situation."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this article.
CAPTION: Villagers of Dandal in the Kargil district of Indian-held Kashmir line up outside a voting booth. "Kargil is being highlighted so much in the news, but we are lagging behind in so many ways," one Kargil voter said.