As the first phase of the assembly elections in Assam kicked off on Monday, there was an inaudible click that registered the fact that something had been put on test. Apart from the ruling Congress in Guwahati - and the various other parties heading governments in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Kerala - electoral theory is also being tested. The matter of bringing peace to a troubled state may not apply as an election issue outside Assam, but the matter of ridding corruption from politics and its vast hinterland could well apply to the rest of the country, and certainly in Tamil Nadu. Historically, we are at an important juncture in how states vote their legislators into - or out of - their assemblies. There was a time when 'national' issues were part and parcel of state elections, as they are still made out to be by those whom these serve well. For instance, for the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)-led Opposition in Assam, the connection between the Tarun Gogoi government and the scam-tainted government headed by the prime minister - who incidentally is a Rajya Sabha member from the state - will be played up. For the government, this linkage will be portrayed as old-fashioned machinations; the real issue being the taming of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and development. It will be the people of Assam who will decide which basket to pick.
The Tamil Nadu scenario is more obviously linked to matters in New Delhi. After all, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is the company that has largely trained the UPA. J Jayalalithaa's All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) will find it easier to make the tainted Centre-tainted state link simply because the dramatis personae in both the theatres are the same. But with brand loyalty mixed with the politics of freebies playing their roles in the hustings, the DMK may indeed manage to sell the electorate what it wants it to buy. The case in Kerala is more parochial. The turnstile-style 'United Democratic Front (UDF) in, Left Democratic Front (LDF) out' electoral algorithm should hold unless the Left's confusion is overridden by the Congress's reputation at the Centre.
The most quarantined and localised of all the assembly polls this time has to be the one being contested in West Bengal. It's a straightforward vote for or against change - with the million rupee question: does Bengal's electorate really want a change? Whether assembly polls have now become self-contained contests, rather than a mix of 'national' and 'state' issues will become more apparent as the voters across these states come out to vote. And in all this, of course, there will be the perennial arithmetic of alliances and votes translated into seats. So if there's no neat pattern we have for you for the assembly elections that's now underway, that's because a month and a half from today, there won't be only a verdict on who comes to power in the four states, but on whether what happens in the 'nation' matters enough in the 'states'.