With an eye on the national elections in 2014, preliminary voting will be staged next month and December
India's preliminary voting dates set
NEW DELHI // The first bell in a prolonged electoral fight between the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been rung, with the announcement of polling dates in the states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
The results of these elections, analysts say, will have a wider impact on the two parties, as they gear up for national elections in 2014.
VS Sampath, India's chief election commissioner, announced this week that elections to the state legislature of Himachal Pradesh will be held November 4. Polling in Gujarat, the most populous state, will take place in two phases on December 13 and 17.
Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist who is the deputy vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore, was careful to emphasise that state elections could not always be taken as barometers of national trends.
"But especially with Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh being BJP-ruled states, how these elections impact the BJP will be critical," Mr Shastri told The National.
Mr Shastri said that, given the BJP's strengths in these two states, Congress would be wary of extrapolating too much from these elections. Although any dip in the BJP's vote share would prove encouraging. Indeed, Manish Tewari, one of the Congress' key spokespersons,said: "No state poll is a referendum on the performance of the national government."
The elections in Gujarat, where the chief minister Narendra Modi will be seeking a third consecutive term for his BJP government, will be watched particularly keenly.
Mr Modi has positioned himself as a pro-business politician and has claimed that Gujarat has achieved extraordinary rates of economic growth under his chief leadership. But he has also been dogged by the shadow of horrific communal riots in his state in 2002, in which members of his government have been found complicit.
A win for Mr Modi will strengthen his hand within the BJP and further enhance the possibility that he could be his party's prime ministerial candidate in 2014. "Given the fact that Modi is pitching for a national role, he will want to come up with a spectacular performance so that he can run at the national level," Mr Shastri said. "He'd want to not just keep the state with the BJP but also win it with better numbers."
Both the Congress and the BJP have already begun to fire preliminary salvos in their campaigns.
On Wednesday, at a rally of farmers in Rajkot, a town in the heart of Gujarat, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi said that the BJP government in Gujarat "is neck-deep in corruption" and claimed: "It is the Congress party that has laid the foundation of development in Gujarat."
Although she did not refer to Mr Modi by name, she said: "Some people, who tend to look negatively at whatever we do, try to take false credit for the development of Gujarat. Why don't they tell people the truth?"
Thursday, Mr Modi shot back, at a rally in the town of Dahod: "The Congress is responsible for inflation and price rise in the country. The Congress has failed to keep each and every promise made to the people."