Fate of 5 states to be sealed in 7 phases

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A little over a fifth of India’s population will vote between February 10 and March 7 in assembly elections in five states, including the most populous and politically significant Uttar Pradesh, the Election Commission of India announced on Saturday.

The elections will take place under the shadow of the third wave of the coronavirus disease — just like the previous set of assembly elections last year happened under the shadow of the second — and both the election watchdog and political parties have signalled that they have learnt from that experience.

The commission has planned sweeping measures to safeguard the polling process, including increasing booths, sanitising voting stations, fully vaccinating all officials (including with booster shots), extending voting hours, and banning all rallies and political processions till January 15 (when this will be reviewed). Given the rising trajectory of the disease, it is likely the ban could last longer.

“There is no need to panic, but only be cautious. Ultimately it is the voter that has to be safe,” said chief election commissioner (CEC) Sushil Chandra. Any Covid violations will be dealt with by state administrations and disaster management authorities, he added.

The results will be announced on March 10.

The election in Uttar Pradesh, definitely the most significant and complicated of the five, will be held in seven phases between February 10 and March 7, with identity politics (religion and caste) likely to be the deciding factor.

The Punjab election will be held in a single phase on February 14, with the farm protests, anti-incumbency and the internal dynamics of the ruling Congress being the key issues.

The Uttarakhand polls will be held in one phase, also on February 14, with anti-incumbency likely outweighing all other factors.

The Goa election will be held in one phase on February 14, and is perhaps the most open of the lot, with 40 of the 23 legislators elected in the last round shifting allegiances.

The Manipur polls will be held in two phases on February 27 and March 3, with anti-incumbency and the ruling BJP’s internal dynamics being the issues to watch.

Coming as they do just past the halfway mark of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance’s second term in office at the Centre, the results of these elections will pretty much decide how politics will play out over the next two years in the run-up to the 2024 national election.

BJP president JP Nadda said the party will return to power with an overwhelming majority. “In the forthcoming assembly elections, Bharatiya Janata Party will again receive the blessings of people. BJP will return to power with an overwhelming majority and take works of service and development to new heights,” Nadda said in a tweet.

For the BJP, the results will indicate whether the party needs to make any changes in its approach in future elections; for the Congress, the elections are a fight for relevance; for a regional party such as the Samajwadi Party, they are a test of its support base; and for opposition parties such as the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress, the contest will show whether there is anything to their national plans apart from aspirations.

The next general election is still a little over two years away, but the results of these five state elections can provide some clues on the shape and structure of the opposition the BJP will face in it.

In UP, analysts expect the primary contest to be between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party, with neither the Congress nor the Bahujan Samaj Party expected to do very well. A win will strengthen and consolidate chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s standing and stature within the BJP, and reassure the party that its appeal remains strong in a state which sends the most MPs to the Lok Sabha.

The SP chief, however, said the state will “bid farewell to the BJP. “People in Uttar Pradesh are set to bid farewell to the BJP government. These dates will mark a huge change in the state. Rules will be followed by Samajwadi Party, but the Election Commission should make sure the ruling party follows these guidelines,” Akhilesh Yadav said soon after EC’s announcement.

“The disgruntlement of voters against their public representatives is much talked about in every election. But by the time voting day arrives, they vote for the leader of the party and not the candidate,” said Rajesh Singh, vice-chancellor of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University.

The seven phases in UP will gradually move from the western part of the state, closer to the national capital, to the eastern edges of the state, bordering Bihar. The BJP won 312 of the state’s 403 seats in the 2017 polls.

In Punjab, the Congress will be hoping that the change in chief minister in September will help it tide over anti-incumbency even as the Shiromani Akali Dal will be hoping that the Congress’ internal issues — its two leaders, chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi and party chief Navjot Singh Sidhu are rarely on the same page — will help its cause. And the Aam Aadmi Party will be hoping it can spring a surprise.

Channi, who was appointed chief minister after a months-long turmoil within the Congress, welcomed the instructions of the EC. “I welcome the instructions by the EC. Till now, we were only a working government, now we will start thinking about elections. With folded hands, I would like to thank the people of Punjab and Congress for considering me worthy to be a Chief Minister for 111 days,” Channi told reporters.

In Uttarakhand, where the BJP and the Congress have traditionally swapped power every five years, the ruling party is wary of this trend. The BJP has changed its chief minister twice in the past year and been accused of bungling its response to the second wave of Covid-19. But the Congress is hindered by internal bickering, and will hope that former chief minister Harish Rawat can steer it to a rare assembly election win.

This is the first Goa assembly elections after the death of former chief minister and Union defence minister Manohar Parrikar. The BJP, which has been in power for a decade but many of whose legislators are defectors from other parties, is hopeful of a victory. The opposition is divided but has signalled a willingness to come together to defeat the BJP. This will also be a significant election for the Congress that emerged as the single-largest party in 2017 but failed to form the government.

In Manipur, another state where the Congress emerged as the single-largest party only to see its lawmakers defect to the BJP, the polls come in the backdrop of increased militancy and calls by powerful tribal groups to join forces against the BJP.. Lack of development and unemployment are two major issues in Manipur.

But the big variable in the elections is not politics but the pandemic. Driven by the highly infectious Omicron strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, daily Covid-19 cases across the country have risen from 26,663 on January 1 to 141,506 on Friday.

The election commission, which faced sharp criticism during the second wave of the pandemic for not reigning in rallies and electioneering, announced a raft of measures to safeguard the election process. The poll watchdog has banned all roadshows and processions on foot, bicycles, motorbikes or cars, and any election rallies until January 15.

No meetings will be allowed between 8pm and 8am, nor will street-corner events be permitted. Vehicle convoys will need to be broken after every five cars and only five people will be allowed in door-to-door campaigns. Victory processions will also be banned. Any violation will result in no permission for further campaigns.

All election officers will be fully vaccinated, and be given precautionary doses as well. The maximum number of electors per booth will be 1,250 and they will be sanitised thoroughly.

“Commission has directed that all central/state government officials deployed for election duty shall be doubly vaccinated. On the recommendation of ECI, the Union Health Ministry has issued orders on 8th February 2021 that all election officials and employees will be treated as frontline workers and all eligible officials shall be given a precautionary booster dose accordingly,” Chandra said.

“Periodic reviews were done and senior officers of ECI held detailed meetings to review all aspects of poll preparation. A lot of Advance planning and meticulous preparation have been done,” he said.

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