Battle to rule five states begins February 4 (Roundup)

New Delhi, Jan 4 (IANS) Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa will elect new governments in staggered polls from February 4 to March 8 in the biggest popularity test since the Lok Sabha polls of 2014.

The results from all the states will be known on March 11, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi said on Wednesday while unveiling a slew of new election-related rules.

Almost all the main parties in the fray – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – welcomed the much-awaited election schedule.

The elections will also test the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization move of banning 500 and 1,000 rupee notes that has triggered an unprecedented cash crunch.

The over month-long exercise will involve 160 million voters sprad over 690 assembly seats, 403 of them alone in Uttar Pradesh, where an election victory will be crucial to the BJP ahead of the 2019 general elections.

Zaidi said the Model Code of Conduct would come into effect immediately and would be applicable to all candidates, political parties, concerned state governments as well as the central government vis-a-vis the five states.

While polling in Goa, the smallest state, and Punjab will take place on February 4, Uttarakhand will vote on February 15 and Manipur in two phases on March 4 and 8.

Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, will go to the polls in seven phases: February 11 (73 seats), 15 (67 seats), 19 (69 seats), 23 (53 seats) and 27 (52 seats) and March 4 (49 seats) and 8 (40 seats).

Goa has 40 seats, Punjab 117, Manipur 60 and Uttarakhand has 70 seats.

All eyes will be on Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is determined to take power by ousting the ruling Samajwadi Party — now in the throes of a huge crisis — and beating back a strong challenge from the BSP.

While the BJP rules Goa, it is a junior ally to the Shiromani Akali Dal-led government in Punjab. The Congress governs Uttarakhand and Manipur.

The AAP, the country’s youngest political outfit and which rules Delhi, will contest for the first time in Punjab and Goa.

“We are committed to conducting the elections in a free and fair manner,” Zaidi said. The Election Commission would also check the “misuse of black money and liquor”.

The poll panel also set the maximum limit for poll expenses for each candidate in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand at Rs 28 lakh, while in Goa and Manipur it is Rs 20 lakh.

TV channels owned by political parties or candidates will be monitored and the Press Council of India will help the panel in detecting paid news.

“Candidates will be required to open accounts in their banks and money more than the said amount will be removed from the account,” said Zaidi.

For the first time, there will be separate polling stations for women and photographs of the candidates will figure on the electronic voting machines.

The poll panel would also insist on a certificate from candidates to show they owe no arrears to any government department vis-a-vis utilities bills and rent on official accommodation.

BJP spokesperson Siddhartha Nath Singh said: “Development will remain our plank but the opposition would like to attack demonetisation policy. Per se, I think this will be very good for us.”

Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said the issues in each state will be different and “it is not going to be a single issue on which the elections will be fought”.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the AAP was confident of taking power in both Goa and Punjab.

BSP chief Mayawati welcomed the schedule and said the party would contest polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand on its own.

The announcement came a day after the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs (CCPA) recommended holding the first half of the Budget session from January 31 to February 9.

The opposition has taken objection to the government’s move of advancing the Budget session, fearing that announcements of sops might influence voters.