Assembly elections: The biggest phase of them all...
Tuesday is the big day of the ongoing election season -- 475 of the total 824 assembly constituencies (ACs) across the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the Union territory of Puducherry will vote on April 6.
This makes it the biggest phase in the eight days this election cycle has been split into, although the remaining five days are exclusively devoted to voting in one state, West Bengal. All of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry vote on April 6. Polling will come to an end in Assam after the last 40 ACs vote on April 6.
West Bengal will see five more phases with 203 of the 294 assembly constituencies in the state voting in five phases till April 29.
In Tamil Nadu, the ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is fighting the elections in partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to win for the third straight time , something that hasn’t happened since the time of MG Ramachandran, the party’s iconic founder, under whom it won three straight elections between 1977 and 1984.
And in Kerala, the CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front, currently in power, is hoping to reverse a four-decade long trend by winning the assembly elections; it and the Congress-led United Democratic Front have alternated in power, starting with the latter, since 1982. .
Indeed, in almost all the four states going to polls, the elections are largely a bi-polar affair. In West Bengal, an ascendant BJP (it won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019, and 40% of the votes) is hoping to unseat the Trinamool Congress, which ended 34 years of Left Front rule in the state in 2011, and returned to power in 2016. The TMC is led by the charismatic Mamata Banerjee , but it is battling anti-incumbency and a wave of defections.
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In Kerala, the contest is between the LDF and the UDF; in Tamil Nadu, while both Dravidian parties have large alliances that include national parties, the primary battle is between the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the AIADMK; and in Assam, again, while there are alliances at play, the two main rivals are the Congress and the BJP (the latter is in power, having won in 2016, after 15 straight years of Congress rule).
Sure, the BJP is hoping to make a mark in Kerala, just as Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam is looking to establish itself as a serious political force in Tamil Nadu, but the primary nature of all four contests is bipolar.
Demographically, Tuesday’s elections capture the diversity of Indian politics. The 475 ACs where polls are taking place are spread over 72 Lok Sabha constituencies of the 543 in India. The ACs range from Muslim-majority ones to those where Muslims do not even account for 0.5% of the population; ones where the share of Scheduled Tribe (ST) groups is as high as 46% (Chirang in Assam) to those s where they are barely present.
Kerala is among the most demographically diverse states in India. The combined share of Muslims and Christians in the state’s population is 44.9%, which puts it second after Punjab in the list of major states ranked by share of minorities in the population.
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There is also significant economic diversity in the ACs going to polls. According to the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) among the 63 districts where polling will take place on Tuesday, the share of the bottom 20% households by national wealth quintiles in district’s population is 0.5% or less in 13 (10 of them in Kerala) and above 20% in seven (six in Assam).
Of the 63 districts voting, 17 have a rural population share of at least 80% while in 16, at least 60% of the population lives in urban areas. Among states, Tamil Nadu has the highest share of urban population (48.4%), while region of Assam voting today has the lowest (17.5%).
Tuesday’s vote will also seal the fate of 35 Rajya Sabha seats in the states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry , four of which will go to polls this year itself. Of the 35 Rajya Sabha seats, the BJP and its ally AIADMK and the Asom Gana Parishad (in Assam) have eight. With the BJP not expected to win a significant number of ACs in Kerala, any reduction in the BJP-led national Democratic Alliance’s current tally in Tamil Nadu or Assam could lead to a corresponding reduction in its strength in the Rajya Sabha. To be sure, these losses could be more than compensated if the BJP even manages to replicate its 2019 Lok Sabha performance in West Bengal.
With Covid-19 appropriate norms being flouted during campaigning, this election cycle could be one of the reasons these states are also seeing a resurgence in Covid-19 cases. When elections to the four states and the UT of Puducherry were announced on February 26, all states except Kerala were going through a trough in terms of the seven-day average of daily new cases . On February 26, this seven-day average in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry was 22, 190, 456, and 22, respectively. By April 4, these numbers were far higher: 57, 1278, 2905, and 180 respectively in the four. In Kerala, the number was 3774 on February 26 and declining, reached a low of 1804 on March 18, but has since increased to 2463 by April 4. To be sure, even these increased numbers may not be capturing the full extent of the resurgence in cases, as testing in at least Assam and Kerala has reduced. On February 26, the 7-day-average of tests conducted was 13,013 and 61,840 in Assam and Kerala, respectively, which reduced to 11,505 and 48,777 on April 4. In Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, testing has increased, but not at the same rate as cases.