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Maharashtra key in assembly electoral battle

india Updated: Oct 11, 2009 17:12 IST

Arch foes Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will battle it out on Tuesday when Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh go to the polls in the country's biggest popularity test since the Lok Sabha elections produced a stunning verdict this summer.

Around 90 million voters are eligible to take part in the day-long exercise, but the focus of the two parties and political pundits will be on Maharashtra, whose electoral outcome could impact national politics.

Having lost recent byelections in different states, the Congress and its Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) ally are determined to retain control of the sprawling state they have ruled since 1999.

A clear victory of the Congress-NCP alliance over the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in Maharashtra, one of India's most industrialised states, will consolidate its grip nationally after the Lok Sabha elections when the Congress stunningly retained power.

For that very reason, the Shiv Sena and the BJP are determined to unseat the Congress-NCP alliance. Most analysts agree that the Congress has the upper hand in both Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh.

"It will be a shot in the arm for the Congress if it wins in Maharashtra," political analyst GVL Narasimha Rao told IANS. "Winning a big state like Maharashtra is very important for the Congress."

He added: "For the BJP, this is an opportunity to bounce back after the Lok Sabha defeat. Winning a state like Maharashtra will help the BJP to regain confidence. It will be a morale booster."

The Congress and the Shiv Sena lead their respective alliances in the fight for the 288-member Maharashtra assembly where no single party is expected to get a majority on its own.

The Maharashtra battle is important for several key individuals.

Foremost among them is Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who assumed office after the horrifying terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The NCP, which plays second fiddle to the Congress in both New Delhi and Mumbai, needs to win maximum number of seats to prove its mettle.

BJP leader Gopinath Munde would like his party to win - so that he emerges as another Pramod Mahajan, his late brother-in-law. And Bal Thackeray and his son Uddhav need a Shiv Sena surge to show they still matter in the state.

But the Shiv Sena is troubled by the continuing aggression of Uddhav's cousin Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which ate into the Shiv Sena-BJP votes in the Lok Sabha polls.

"MNS is a spoiler for the BJP and the Shiv Sena, there is no denying it," said Rao. But he added that the newly formed alliance of the Left and Republican parties could dent the Congress-NCP support base too.

Maharashtra's voter population is 76 million. A total of 3,559 candidates are in the fray. Voting will take place in 209,178 polling stations.

The Congress is confident of retaining power in Haryana, where Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda called for early elections after sweeping nine of the 10 Lok Sabha seats from the state in May.

The opposition, on the other hand, is splintered, with the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the BJP breaking up their alliance after the Lok Sabha drubbing.

Haryana Congress president Venod Kumar Sharma told IANS that his party would win a comfortable majority in the 90-member legislature.

The situation is no different in Arunachal Pradesh, where the Congress is widely seen as ahead of everyone else in the battle for the 60-seat assembly. In any case, the Congress has already won three seats unopposed.

One of them is that of Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu. In Arunachal, the NCP, the Trinamool Congress and the regional Arunachal Congress besides the BJP are all pitted against the Congress.

Unlike in Maharashtra and Haryana, where issues of governance and price rise mattered, candidates in Arunachal Pradesh were vocal about the reported Chinese troop intrusions into the border state whose ownership is claimed by Beijing.

According to the Election Commission, the results from all three states will be declared October 22.