Crucial election cycle in 5 states to start on March 27
Around 187 million people across five states in southern and eastern India will vote in 824 assembly seats for a month starting March 27, the election commission announced on Friday, kicking off the most crucial poll season since the general elections two years ago.
Votes in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will be counted on May 2, said chief election commissioner Sunil Arora. All Covid-19 election guidelines, including limiting the number of electors, regulating physical campaigning and road shows and sanitising booths and personnel, will be in place, he added.
The commission has set up 270,000 polling stations for what will be the largest electoral exercise in the country since the coronavirus pandemic struck early last year.
West Bengal, where a surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to unseat the ruling Trinamool Congress, will vote in the highest number of phases: eight. The 294 assembly seats in the eastern state will go to the polls between March 27 and April 29.
Polling for 234 seats in Tamil Nadu, 140 seats in Kerala and 30 seats in Puducherry will take place on April 6. Assam, with 126 assembly seats, will vote in three phases: March 27, April 1 and 6. Bypolls to Kanyakumari and Malappuram Lok Sabha seats will be also conducted on April 6.
Tamil Nadu will witness traditional rivals Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) square off in the first state election without political stalwarts M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa. Kerala will see the Left parties fight a Congress-led alliance to hold on to their last bastion and Puducherry will head to the polls under President’s Rule after its government fell four days ago. Assam will see a three-cornered fight between BJP, Congress and regional parties.
“Last year, the entire world, when confronted with Covid-19, was figuring out how to balance the rights of citizens while protecting the health and safety of citizens,” said Arora, who demits office on April 13. “The commission used the Rajya Sabha elections and Bihar elections last year as a litmus to see how to conduct large-scale polls.”
Arora said the nationwide vaccination drive made the situation more conducive to conduct elections. He said door-to-door campaigning will be restricted to five persons, including the candidate, while road shows will be allowed with a maximum of five vehicles. The number of electors per booth will also be limited to 1,000.
The announcement of the month-long poll schedule in West Bengal stoked a controversy with CM Mamata Banerjee alleging the dates were suited to the BJP. “With all due respect to the Election Commission, I want to say questions are being raised on why elections will be held in so many phases in Bengal while other states will be voting in one phase,” she asked.
But the EC dismissed the charges.”The elections to West Bengal (assembly) in 2016 were in seven phases. The Lok Sabha was in seven phases. So, 7 to 8 (phases) is not such a big deal because we have to see movement of forces, we also have to see the current charges and counter-charges,” said Arora.
Bengal is expected to witness a pitched battle between the TMC, which is looking for a third straight term on the back of Banerjee’s mass popularity, and the BJP, which has rapidly expanded its presence and is hoping to form the government in the state for the first time.
For decades, the BJP was a fringe player in Bengal but surged to 40% vote share in the 2019 general election and ended up with 18 seats, just behind the TMC’s tally of 22. The party is banking on PM Narendra Modi’s appeal, corruption charges against grassroots TMC leaders and Hindu mobilisation to carry it past the majority mark of 147.
The BJP is also hoping to gain the support of refugee Dalit communities by promising them citizenship through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which seeks to fast-track grant of Indian citizenship to persecuted Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhs, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK have traditionally swapped power, but Jayalalithaa made history when she returned to power in 2016. This is the first state election without the two stalwarts and parties are jockeying to claim their legacy.
Observers will be watching AIADMK for signs of internal dissent after the emergence of former general secretary VK Sasikala from prison last month. The DMK alliance is led by Karunanidhi’s son MK Stalin, who is aiming to become the chief minister for the first time.
In Kerala — another state where traditional rivals Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front have alternated in power — the ruling LDF is fighting to keep the Left parties relevant in national politics. If the Congress-led UDF wins, the Left won’t be in power in any state. The BJP is also looking to make a mark, especially in the urban pockets of state capital Thiruvananthapuram.
Assam is set to see a triangular contest between the ruling BJP coalition, a Congress-led alliance and a clutch of regional outfits born out of the fierce protests against the CAA. The 2019 election was held in the shadow of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which left out 1.9 million people, and the impending CAA, which indigenous groups fear may trigger an influx of illegal immigrants.
But since early 2020, implementation of CAA has been slow, and the rules not drafted. The NRC, too, has proceeded at a glacial pace. The BJP is hoping to retain power due to its social schemes while the Opposition is hoping to benefit from anti-CAA sentiment.
Puducherry is heading to the polls in political turmoil and under President’s Rule. Its Congress-led government collapsed four days ago after failing to prove a majority due to a spate of resignations from its lawmakers.