NEW DELHI, Jan 26 (IANS): Manipur, India's most disturbed state after Kashmir, will Saturday elect a new 60-member assembly to mark the start of make-or-break elections in five states.
The staggered exercise, which ends with the vote in Goa and Uttar Pradesh March 3, will be this year's first major test for political parties. Along with Uttarakhand and Punjab, a grand total of 137 million voters will be eligible to exercise their franchise in the five states.
It will be an acid test in particular for Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who is on an aggressive campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in a bid to cut to size its ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party.
"If the Congress does well in Uttar Pradesh and other states, the UPA government will get a boost," Nisar-ul Haq, a professor at the Jamia Milia University here, told IANS. "The reform process will resume."
If the Congress fares badly, it will jostle the central government and raise questions about Rahul Gandhi's leadership qualities.
The elections will be equally significant for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Akali Dal and smaller political formations in Goa and Manipur.
The Congress now rules only Manipur and Goa among the five states. It is the main opposition party in Punjab and Uttarakhand. In Uttar Pradesh, where it finished a pathetic fourth in 2007, it wants to revive itself.
Pundits say that an overall poor showing will hurt the Congress, which has been hit hard by corruption scandals, rising food prices and uneasy ties with its key allies.
In contrast to 2009 when its victory in the Lok Sabha elections gave it newfound confidence, the Congress now rules only three major states on its own - Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Assam besides Haryana.
In contrast, the BJP, which rules Uttarakhand among the poll-bound states, is in an aggressive mood. But it has not recovered politically in a major way in Uttar Pradesh, where its ballooning growth of the late 1980s and 1990s, on the strength of the Ayodhya campaign, has been reversed.
Naturally, the BSP and the Samajwadi Party appear to be in close contest in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state accounting for 111 million of the overall 137 million voters.
Uttar Pradesh, which has a 403-seat legislative assembly, is the only state that will see staggered elections, spread over seven phases, from Feb 8 to March 3.
Punjab, ruled by the Akali Dal-BJP combine, will vote Jan 30 for a 117-member assembly along with Uttarakhand, which has a 70-seat house. Goa will see balloting March 3 for a 40-member assembly.
The outcome of the state elections, any which way, will not affect the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But a poor result would make the Congress more vulnerable to its assertive allies.
The BSP and the Samajwadi Party have uneasy ties with the Congress. While propping up the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on paper, neither will accommodate the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.
Uttar Pradesh is thus the most important battleground: each of the four major contestants will like to prove its worth.
The BSP wants to hold on to power, the Samajwadi Party would like to regain office, the BJP is unhappy being a distant third and the Congress does not want to be an also-ran any more.
The Congress, some analysts say, would like to grab enough seats so as to play a kingmaker's role in the event of a hung verdict.
The Uttar Pradesh outcome will sow the seeds of Indian politics tomorrow.