In India, six states are going to the polls from Friday, in a staggered manner, to elect new assemblies in the country's biggest and last popularity test ahead of next year’s national elections. The Congress, which heads India's ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are the dominant players in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. The electoral battle also includes troubled Jammu and Kashmir and Mizoram in the northeast.
Upcoming state elections in India will set the stage for next year's national elections
All eyes will be on the troubled Bastar region that is home to five districts of Chhattisgarh, one of India's youngest states, which will elect 39 of the state's 90 legislators in the first of the two-phase elections. A staggering 65,000 policemen have been deployed in the 12 constituencies to take on Maoist guerrillas who have vowed to disrupt the elections.
In Mizoram, the Congress will be locked in a straight contest against the ruling Mizo National Front (MNF), once an insurgent group. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress will be one of the dominant players along with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the National Conference and the BJP.
Barring perhaps the troubled Kashmir Valley, where Islamic separatists are already calling for an election boycott, millions will vote in the carnival of democracy.
Crucial to leading political parties
The polls are crucial both to the Congress and the BJP. The Congress Party has ruled Delhi since 1998 and is hoping for another five-year term. But the BJP is trying to wrest Delhi away and also wants to retain Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Ahead of next year’s national elections, these elections are “very important because all the key states going to polls in the next month or so are states where India's two principal national parties are directly facing each other;” explained political analyst G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, who heads the polling agency Development and Research Services (DRS).
“So whoever wins these elections will certainly have an advantage over the rival. For the Congress to wrest at least a couple of states from the BJP and to retain party rule in Delhi is going to be critical."
The state polls are being held against the backdrop of terrorist attacks and religious violence in several parts of the country.
Moreover, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has been seeking to slow inflation to withstand the effects of the global financial crisis and shore up economic growth.
Terrorism, fundamentalism and unemployment will be main issues
Singh's Congress Party, which heads the coalition that came to power four and a half years ago with a pledge to help the poor, has lost ground in nine of 11 state polls since January 2007.
"There are two kinds of issues -- national issues and state level issues,” explained Dr Sudha Pai, a professor of political studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “National issues obviously include terrorism. Hindu fundamentalism, particularly in the states where the BJP is in power like Madhya Pradesh, will be very important.”
“Inflation, terrorism and to some extent unemployment will be the important national issues. The economic crisis will also be important -- especially inflation. The price of vegetables at present has soared to such an extent that even the middle class can’t buy vegetables as they usually do. And winter is a season of cheap vegetables."
The outcome of the state elections, which many perceive as the semi-finals, is bound to cast a shadow on next year's national election.
But if it makes gains in these elections, the Congress Party will be able to reflect how on how it can maintain power in the parliamentary election and how to bargain with its alliance partners.