New Delhi: The die has been cast, with India’s Election Commission (EC) on Friday announcing dates for crucial assembly polls in five states that will gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before they face off in next year’s general election.
The EC, which signalled its intent to take a tough stance on the use of so-called paid news and false disclosures by candidates, has scheduled voting in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram over nearly a month before the results are announced on 8 December.
Voters in Chhattisgarh will turn out in two phases on 11 November and 19 November, Madhya Pradesh on 25 November, Rajasthan on 1 December, and Delhi and Mizoram on 4 December.
These will be the first elections that will introduce the NOTA (none of the above) alternative as part of the secret ballot in line with an order passed by the Supreme Court on 27 September to give voters the option of rejecting all the candidates in the fray.
For both the Congress and the BJP, these elections are extremely crucial. Given that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has plunged into the national arena with an intense pre-election campaign, the stakes are especially high for the Gujarat chief minister. The polls will test the BJP’s claim that Modi possesses an appeal for the voters that goes beyond Gujarat.
“These are state-level elections and may not be a referendum as such on Modi himself. However, he is trying to build a national persona for himself, and if there is a positive stake, he would want to encash on it,” said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst.
A sweep for the BJP or a reasonable performance by the Congress will have attendant consequences. At the same time, it will also showcase a section of India’s first-time voters—nationally estimated at a little under 150 million.
The state polls will also be a test of the EC’s scrutiny of election expenses and measures to prevent illegal practices like paid news—favourable write-ups in return for which candidates pay money to the publications that print them.
“The commission is taking necessary steps to educate the voters and officials in this regard so that the facility of NOTA would be made available in the forthcoming elections,” chief election commissioner V.S. Sampath said.
He added that the panel would also take steps to implement a Supreme Court order of 13 September that electoral contestants who conceal information in their nomination papers would be barred from running for public office.
While the BJP is seeking a third consecutive term in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress is fighting strong anti-incumbency in Rajasthan and Delhi.
In Mizoram, where Congress president Sonia Gandhi has already launched the party’s campaign, the party is facing tough competition from the Mizo National Front (MNF); the party won 32 of the 40 seats in the 2008 election.
Recent opinion polls suggest that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) may be weighing on the party’s prospects and the BJP consequently has a marginal edge.
With Dalits constituting a sizeable population in all these states except in Mizoram, the Bahujan Samaj Party led by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has to be factored into the electoral equations. Surveys also showed that caste and good governance would influence the final verdict.
The electoral race in the forthcoming polls is expected to be tight also because of the dramatic demographic shift—nationally the age group of 18-35 accounts for 47% of the population.
The Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government in Madhya Pradesh is seeking a third term in the state where he is cashing in on a reputation for good governance and economic development.
The Congress, which was voted out in 2003 after being in power for a decade under current general secretary Digvijay Singh, is struggling to regain its ground in the state, especially in the tribal areas and among the Dalits. The party once enjoyed strong backing from the tribals, who make up one-fifth of the state’s 68.62 million population.
Mrug said that if the BJP wins the state, it would be a demonstration of its ability to keep its strongholds intact. “It will also be an indicator of their strong electoral presence in northern India ahead of 2014 polls,” he said.
A study conducted by Edelweiss Financial Services has said that “caste patterns also favour BJP. OBCs (other backward classes) and upper caste traditionally vote in favour of the party and both of them combined account for 55% of the total population. Hence, the party is in a highly advantageous position in the state.”
Data from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies show Dalits form 16% of the total population, OBCs 35%, tribals 19%, Muslims 10% and upper castes 20% in Madhya Pradesh.
While Chouhan will lead the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has not announced its candidate for the chief ministerial post. Although a section of senior leaders is seriously considering projecting union power minister Jyotiraditya Scindia for the top post, no official announcement has been made as yet.
In neighbouring Chhattisgarh, the Congress faces an internal crisis after the killing of 27 Congressmen, including leader of opposition Mahendra Karma, state unit president Nand Kumar Patel and senior leader V.C. Shukla by Maoist insurgents in May.
The Raman Singh-led BJP government, which is seeking a third consecutive term, is looking to leverage the goodwill generated from the various welfare schemes launched by the government. Internal differences in the BJP state unit as well as corruption allegations against ministers in the Raman Singh cabinet have given the Congress unit a fresh lease of hope.
In Congress-ruled Rajasthan, where the party is facing a strong anti-incumbency wave, it is also fighting the growing popularity of Modi, who has already addressed campaign rallies in the state.
Although chief minister Ashok Gehlot has introduced a slew of welfare schemes and development projects, rising prices and controversies involving his ministers may mar Congress prospects. Two senior ministers in the Gehlot cabinet have resigned after being dragged into sex scandals. However, infighting in the BJP’s state unit could hit the party’s prospects there.
Rajasthan has a strong tendency to vote out the incumbent, and over the past two decades, governments in the state have been alternately formed by the BJP and the Congress.
In Delhi, where chief minister Sheila Dikshit is seeking a fourth term, the electoral battle so far has been mainly between the Congress and the BJP. But the intense campaign of anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has the potential to damage both the ruling and the opposition parties. Recent surveys projected that the AAP would make a significant electoral debut, with nearly 50% of the electorate being in the age group of 18-35.
Both the BJP and the Congress welcomed the announcement of poll dates.
“We hope that the BJP will come back to power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and people of the state will vote in favour of our party because of the good work and development projects undertaken by the two state governments,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, spokesperson and political adviser to BJP president Rajnath Singh. “The BJP believes that the people of Delhi and Rajasthan will vote out the Congress party because of its misrule both in the states and at the centre.”
Congress spokesperson Meem Afzal rejected the notion that these state polls will be a kind of semifinals before the Lok Sabha polls. “For us, every election is a final in itself,” he said.
Gyan Verma contributed to this story.