New Delhi/Ahemdabad: The first round of the much-awaited electoral battle has been kicked off with the Election Commission announcing dates for the crucial assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, both ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Elections to the 182-member Gujarat assembly will be in two phases—87 constituencies on 13 December and 95 on 17 December.
Polls to the 68-member Himachal Pradesh assembly will be held on 4 November, V.S. Sampath, chief election commissioner, said on Wednesday.
The votes will be counted on 20 December. The model code of conduct is now in place in both the states.
These state elections will be a test for the BJP, the main opposition party at the centre, on whether it can survive the so-called anti-incumbency factor—discontent voters electing out a ruling party.
It will also test if the Congress party, which heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre, can shake off the damage done to its image by a series of corruption charges against its leaders and its failure to contain inflation.
Narendra Modi began his election campaign last month, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi launched her party’s campaign in the state on Wednesday, fiercely defending the UPA government and the economic measures it has initiated despite criticism from some of its allies and opposition parties.
Sandeep Shastri, pro vice chancellor, Jain University, and director, International Academy for Creative Teaching at Bangalore, said the results of the two state elections are not likely to reflect popular sentiment on the Union government but will have an impact on national politics.
“The BJP will try to bring in the national issues but we have been seeing that the state elections are fought on state-level issues... But if the BJP does badly, it will be weakened in its fight against the UPA government and if it does extremely well, the results will strengthen the BJP. So the election results will help the parties to strategize ahead of the next general election,” Shastri said.
Political observers said the polls in Gujarat are crucial for Modi, who seems to be keen on being the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “Modi wants to do extremely well so that he can stake claim for the top post,” Shastri said.
The Election Commission, the independent body that conducts elections in the country, is focused on reducing the influence of money in the state elections.
Pointing out that paid news disturbs free and fair polls, Sampath said monitoring committees at the district-, state- and Election Commission-levels will oversee the polls and take timely action if necessary. “Specific instructions have been issued at district-level as incidents of paid news generally occur at the district level,” he told reporters in the national capital.
The panel has also directed all the candidates to open special bank accounts for the purpose of election expenditure to ensure “greater transparency”.
Meanwhile, Gandhi, launching the Congress’ campaign in Rajkot, refrained from attacking Modi or referring to the 2002 communal riots, an issue her party has been highlighting outside the state.
She, instead, focused on development, saying the BJP, which has been ruling the state for more than a decade, cannot claim the credit for the state’s progress. “It was the Congress party that had initiated the development process in Gujarat,” she said at a public assembly in Rajkot.
Unlike in the past, when the Congress has tried to woo Muslims, the country’s oldest party seemed to be focused on convincing farmers, Dalits and other backward communities for their support in the Gujarat election.
In her speech in Hindi, Gandhi blamed the opposition for diverting attention from core issues by taking up trivial issues. Although earlier Congress governments in the state had initiated development projects such as the Sardar Sarovar project for irigation and power generation, farmers in Gujarat are yet to benefit from it, she said. “The Congress always believed that the nation will progress only if the farmers progress,” she told the gathering. Defending the UPA government’s move to allow overseas investment in multi-brand retail, Gandhi said it would help farmers get the right prices for their produce.
“Anyway, the state governments have been given powers to accept or reject the multinational retail companies. In that case, why are you trying to mislead the people?” Gandhi asked, referring to the BJP-led opposition’s campaign against overseas investment in retail.
She also questioned the BJP government in Gujarat for not increasing the cap on subsidized cooking gas cylinders from six to nine as has been done by Congress-ruled states.
The Union government last month increased the price of diesel by Rs.5 per litre and capped the supply of subsidized gas cylinders to six per household, moves which the entire opposition and some friendly parties criticized. The Trinamool Congress, a key ally, pulled out of the UPA over this decision and the easing of foreign direct investments norms.
Gandhi also criticized the BJP’s attack against the UPA government on corruption, saying the Congress has taken action against those charged with graft but the BJP hasn’t.
The BJP reacted sharply: “It was shocking when Congress president Sonia Gandhi talked of corruption during her speech. She has no moral authority to speak on corruption,” BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy said. “A party which has a record in corruption is in complete denial mode,” he said.
Referring to Gandhi’s speech in Rajkot, Rudy added: “Sonia should refrain from false propaganda against Gujarat government. Her argument on capping gas cylinders is absurd. The Congress by its culture has legitimized black-marketing with its rationale of capping cylinders.”
Gandhi was silent on Modi’s claim that public funds were spent on her travel and treatment abroad. Modi has said the Union government spent Rs.1,880 crore on Gandhi’s foreign trips. The Congress has condemned the statement but has not given details of expenses.