India set for biggest election ahead of Lok Sabha battle
New Delhi, Nov 12 (IANS) In what will be a crucial and last popularity test ahead of parliamentary elections due early next year, six Indian states will elect new governments in staggered elections beginning Friday.
Voters from Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in the northern tip to Christian-majority Mizoram in the northeast will see polling along with Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in the populous Hindi heartland.
The main contestants in the northern belt are the country's ruling Congress party and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both are naturally eager to gauge the mood of the electorate.
Also in the fray - partly as serious contenders, partly as spoilers - will be a plethora of smaller parties that increasingly play a key role in determining who rules the world's largest democracy.
They include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), some of which are readily providing an umbrella for those denied ticket by the Congress and the BJP.
The Congress will be locked in a straight contest in Mizoram against the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), once an insurgent group. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress will be one of the dominant players along with the People's Democratic Party (PDP), the National Conference and the BJP.
Barring perhaps the troubled Kashmir Valley, where Islamic separatists are already calling for an election boycott, millions will be voting in the carnival of democracy.
The polls are crucial both to the Congress and the BJP. The Congress has ruled Delhi since 1998 and is hoping for another five-year term. The BJP is trying to wrest Delhi - and wants to retain Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar told IANS: 'We consider this a semi-final ahead of the Lok Sabha election. We are sure of retaining the states we rule and winning in Delhi too. We are very confident.'
Minister of State for Home Affairs and Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed was equally emphatic: 'We are confident. The people want a change (in states), and it is only the Congress that can bring about a change.'
But neither party is finding the going easy although both publicly exude confidence. In some states, the process of selection of candidates is still on, occasionally triggering violent protests by supporters of those not fielded.
Inflation and the shooting prices of food items, including vegetables, is a leading concern for voters. The Congress is on the backfoot on this front, with the BJP governments blaming New Delhi for the high cost of living.
The Congress hopes to dislodge its opponents where they are in power by harping on the failings of their administration.
Chhattisgarh will be the first to see balloting -- Nov 14 and 20. The exercise is spread over two days so as to give the authorities time to rotate the security forces in view of threats from Maoist guerrillas.
Voters in Madhya Pradesh - the very heart of India - will make a choice Nov 27. Delhi's turn comes two days later; Mizoram will have elections Dec 2 and Rajasthan Dec 4.
Jammu and Kashmir, where a relentless separatist campaign rages on despite the death of thousands since 1989, will see a seven-phase polling - from Nov 17 to Dec 24.
The Kashmir election has elicited interest globally, more so in neighbouring Pakistan.
On Dec 8, votes will be counted in the four northern states and Mizoram. The vote count will take place Dec 28 in Jammu and Kashmir.
The outcome of the state elections is bound to cast a shadow on next year's Lok Sabha election.
Although both the Congress and the BJP need to prove their worth in the state battle, the pressure is bound to be more on the latter because only a good showing will fetch it enough allies to form a credible alliance in the Lok Sabha election.
The Congress would want to hurl a few powerful punches at the BJP to retain political dominance of the multi-party United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that it heads.
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