The Election Commission (EC) has formally sounded the poll bugle thus, setting the stage for a high-powered political contest in five states, namely Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. The poll schedule for the states was announced by the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S Y Quraishi, along with and Election Commissioners V S Sampath and H S Brahma,at a press conference in New Delhi on Saturday. (Read: Press release by the Election Commission)
While the smaller states of Manipur, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand will see a single-phase election, all eyes will be on the politically-sensitive Uttar Pradesh that will witness seven phases of polling - the longest in any state in the country so far.
While Manipur will have elections on January 28 next year, Punjab and Uttarakhand will go to vote on January 30. Goa, meanwhile, is slated for elections on March 3. Polling in Uttar Pradesh will begin from February 4 and will conclude on February 28.
The counting will take place on March 4, 2012.
Most political parties welcomed the seven-phase poll schedule announced for UP. The state is gearing up for a keenly-watched four-cornered contest to the 403-member assembly. As Bahujan Samaj party (BSP) supremo Mayawati looks to beat the incumbency factor and return for a third successive term as Chief Minister, the Congress could add a spanner in the works. Party general secretary and the man leading the poll charge in UP, Rahul Gandhi, has unleashed an aggressive campaign against Ms Mayawati, targeting her over issues of land acquisition and corruption - the former especially being a highly-emotive issue with the farmers. As Mr Gandhi looks to revive the party's charm in the state, it would be expecting to score brownie points with the latest Cabinet announcement of 4.5% quota in government jobs and universities for Muslims.
"If you see, the lists have been declared much before the poll dates have been announced. I think this is the first time in the history of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh that the lists have been announced earlier than the dates which have been announced. So, I would say that the Congress, on its part, is ready for the elections. We were expecting the elections to be somewhere around February - March, so I think we are on our way. Rahul Gandhi has extensively travelled in UP while the other leaders have been organising rallies and other developmental programs in Uttar Pradesh," said Congress MP RPN Singh.
Meanwhile, the Samajwadi Party (SP) which is also hoping to reclaim lost power would be worried as the Muslims have remained a traditional votebank for the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led party.
"See Samjawadi Party has been working with the youth and other parties can work as well but the youth are most inspired by the Samajwadi Party", said party leader Akhilesh Yadav on being questioned over his Congress contemporary Rahul Gandhi's campaign.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, took strong offence to Cabinet's decision to reserve 4.5% in government jobs and universities for Muslims.
"They (Congress party) think that by making reservations they would be able to climb the rope," said BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
The BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad said, "The BJP will strongly oppose such a move taken by the government which is based on caste system."
Muslims form 18% of the population of Uttar Pradesh, making them the largest minority in India's most populous state.
The Election Commission too would be keenly watching political parties' move as the model code of conduct is already in place. "We will take up any complaints and violations from now on", Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi told NDTV.
Mr Quraishi also said that anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare and his team of activists would be closely monitored. Mr Hazare has declared that he would campaign against the Congress in the forthcoming assembly polls for not bringing in a "strong" Lokpal Bill.
Although there was no legal violation of Anna campaigning, we did mention to them that there is an issue of propriety", Mr Quraishi said.
The schedule for the elections was finalised by the Election Commission after assessing the availability of paramilitary forces from the government. Around 80,000 paramilitary personnel, apart from state policemen, are expected to be deployed during the Assembly polls.
The Election Commission has also set up 24-hour call centres in the poll-bound states. (Read: Election Commission to set up 24-hour call centres in poll-bound states