New Delhi: Amid corruption sagas that have dented India`s ruling coalition, five states go to the polls from Monday in the country`s largest electoral exercise in two years that holds the maximum significance for the Congress and the Communists.
Some 150 million people will be eligible to vote in the April-May elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and West Bengal in which the key players are the Congress, the Left, and regional parties such as the Trinamool Congress, DMK, AIADMK and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP).
Most political pundits believe that ruling parties will be voted out in most of the five states. If that does happen, the most significant of changes will take place in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.
Although the Left Front is overtly confident of retaining power, West Bengal watchers believe the six-phase elections in the state are likely to end the over three decades of uninterrupted and enviable Marxist rule.
"After the Bihar election where it was jolted by the scale of its defeat, the Congress is looking for solace," political analyst GVL Narasimha Rao said to a news agency. "As for the Left, it is now a matter of survival."
Congress spokesman Shakeel Ahmed explained why these elections, although taking place only in five states, are important.
"Assembly results from any state reflect on the national political scene and indicate what the preferences are of the people of those areas and what their priorities are," he said.
The Congress hopes to overcome the divided opposition in Assam to prolong its rule for another five years and retain power in Puducherry. In Kerala, going by the past, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has the better chance of dislodging the now ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The Congress, which rules the country and has a stake in all five election-bound states, has its fingers crossed although publicly it voices confidence of a good performance across the board.
The Congress concerns arise from the major corruption scams that have hit the central government in the past year or so.
These include the second generation spectrum allocation scam that has led to the jailing of DMK leader and disgraced former communications minister A. Raja and allegations of corruption involving the Commonwealth Games last year whose public face was veteran Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi.
The other worry for the Congress is inflation -- steep hike in prices of food and other commodities.
"If the Congress scrapes through in this election, it`s ok. But if they suffer big reverses, there will be problems," Rao added.
"The Congress would be looking for a sort of breather so that it can argue that all the negativity of recent months is misplaced."
A change of guard in Tamil Nadu would hit hard the ruling DMK, which is embroiled in the spectrum allocation scam, which even Congress loyalists admit has affected the image of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, otherwise still regarded as the "Mr Clean" of Indian politics.
Likely changes in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu would herald two more women chief ministers: actress-turned-politician J. Jayalalithaa, who ruled Tamil Nadu during 1991-96, and the passionately anti-Marxist Mamata Banerjee, who is union railway minister.
The country`s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a player only in Assam. Everywhere else it is a poor also-ran. In Kerala, the party has never won an assembly seat till now.
The biggest of the state assemblies is in West Bengal -- 294 seats. It is followed by Tamil Nadu (234 seats), Kerala (140), Assam (126) and Puducherry (30).
While Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will have one day`s balloting April 13, Assam will see two days of polling: April 4 and 11. West Bengal, which has seen a dramatic surge in political violence, will vote over six days: April 18, 23 and 27 and May 3, 7 and 10.
Votes will be counted in all five states May 13.