Stage set for crucial electoral battle

Stage set for crucial electoral battle

New Delhi: The Election Commission (EC) set the stage for a key political battle in West Bengal, which may result in a regime change after 35 years of Left rule.

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The commission also notified elections in four other states - Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.

The staggered elections will begin on 4 April and conclude on 10 May, and are crucial for the Congress party, which has been rendered politically vulnerable following a series of charges of alleged corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

Aware of the stakes, the (United Progressive Alliance) UPA government had, in both the railway budget as well as the Union budget, earmarked sops for poll-bound states.

These included ad hoc grants to educational institutions in these states.

Elections to Assam’s 126 constituencies will be held on 4 and 11 April (62 and 64 constituencies, respectively). Kerala’s 140 assembly constituencies, Tamil Nadu’s 234 and Puducherry’s 30 constituencies will vote on 13 April. West Bengal, where some areas face a Maoist insurgency, will go to the polls in six phases. Polls in West Bengal’s 294 constituencies will take place on 18 April (54 constituencies), 23 April (50), 27 April (75), 3 May (63), 7 May (38) and 10 May (14).

“The counting for all five assembly elections will take place on 13 May," said chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi. The model code of conduct comes into effect immediately.

This is going to be the first election in which overseas Indians have been registered as voters and will be allowed to vote if present in person.

Analysts say the repercussions of corruption as well as the Central government’s inability to contain inflation will be felt only if the opposition campaigns effectively.

“While the opposition will try to capitalize on these issues, the question will be how clean they are perceived by the voters in concerned states," said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In West Bengal and Kerala, the ruling Left combine faces an uphill task, particularly after the debacle in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in these states.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala may make it difficult for the ruling Left Democratic Front to return to power, particularly after the former’s good show in the last general election. Congress leaders had been expecting an easy victory up to a month back considering the declining popularity of the government and the feuds within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, which heads the ruling coalition. They admit that prospects have been dented by controversies involving UDF leaders that have resurfaced recently.

In West Bengal, the CPM-led Left Front, which has been in power for almost 35 years, is expected to face its toughest electoral fight since coming to power in the state in 1977. The Left Front—which also comprises the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party —has to contend with a strong anti-incumbency wave, the Maoist insurgency and internal issues such as ideological and organizational crises, apart from a resurgent opposition headed by railway minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC, a crucial ally of the UPA, won 19 of the 42 seats in the state while the Left combine was able to win just 15.

On Tuesday, home minister P. Chidambaram said the law and order situation continues to be “unsatisfactory" in West Bengal. He said that 100 companies, nearly 1,200 paramilitary personnel, have been dispatched to the state.

In Tamil Nadu, another key UPA ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) faces a formidable challenge from the main opposition All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa. While the DMK is expected to fight the elections along with the Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the AIADMK is in the process of formalizing an alliance with actor Vijayakanth-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK).

The DMK has been in the eye of storm over the second-generation (2G) spectrum allocation scam with its leader and former Union telecom minister A. Raja being arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation for his alleged involvement.

“It’s a closely contested election in Tamil Nadu, where it is a live-or-die situation for all the stake holders," said Gyani Shankaran, a Chennai-based political analyst. “From the opposition point of view, it’s an election fought against spectrum allocation corruption and inflation. But it remains to be seen how far the freebies rolled out by the DMK government would be able to tide over this."

The Congress, which has been in power in Assam for two consecutive terms, will look to retain power, even as the Bharatiya Janata Party is trying hard to make new inroads by taking up topical issues such as illegal migration from Bangladesh and corruption in the region. However, Congress expects the recently revived peace talks with insurgent grouping United Liberation Front of Asom, or Ulfa, to work in its favour.

Congress also hopes to retain power in Puducherry.

Meanwhile, in its attempt to check poll-related corruption, EC has taken various initiatives to monitor election spending, including making it mandatory for candidates to open a special bank account from which they will have to incur all election expenses. “We will keep a close eye on any sort of paid news," Quraishi said. He was referring to the practice of advertising in the form of news reports.

Last month, the Central government raised the election expenditure limit for both parliamentary and assembly constituencies by around 60%. The spending limit for a candidate in a parliamentary constituency in major states is now Rs40 lakh as against Rs25 lakh earlier. The limit for assembly constituencies is up from Rs10 lakh to Rs16 lakh.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint