3 N-E states to vote next month

New Delhi, Jan. 11: Tripura will go to the polls on February 14 and Meghalaya and Nagaland on February 23, the Election Commission said today, putting to rest speculation about deferring of elections and imposition of central rule in Nagaland.

The Assembly elections were finalised against a backdrop of requests by the Nagaland Congress and even the government to defer elections and declare a settlement to the 16-year NSCN (Isak-Muivah)-Centre negotiation.

Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath's announcement came on a day when Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh held a meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence, ostensibly to discuss the state's opinion on a proposed solution to the Naga imbroglio. Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ahmed Patel were also present at the meeting, sources said. No details of the meeting were available.

Hours later, the Election Commission announced the poll dates and the Congress asked its screening committee to select candidates in Nagaland.

Petroleum minister M. Veerappa Moily will chair the committee. He will be assisted by senior Congress leader Mukul Wasnik, the party in-charge for Nagaland Luizinho Faleiro, PCC chief S.I. Jamir and the Congress Legislature Party leader in Nagaland, Tokheho Yepthomi.

The Election Commission also announced byelections to nine Assembly constituencies in Mizoram (Chalfilh), Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Punjab to be held on February 23 and in Assam (Algapur), Bihar and Maharashtra on February 24. Results of these elections will also be announced on February 28.

As the sun rises in the northeastern states ahead of rest of India, polling in the three states will be held from 7am to 4pm and the byelections in the other states will be held from 8am to 5pm.

"The commission will appoint an adequate number of expenditure observers and assistant expenditure observers to exclusively monitor election expenditure of the contesting candidates," Sampath told reporters.

Elections in the northeastern states, with the possible exception of Tripura, are an expensive affair with candidates spending crores of rupees.

With election campaign gathering momentum in the three states, which have 60-member Legislative Assemblies, political parties are ready for pitched battles.

For the Congress, which has not fared well in other states, it will be a tough test as it tries to retain Meghalaya and wrest Nagaland from the regional party, Naga People's Front (NPF). In Tripura, where it does not have a strong organisational base, the Manik Sarkar-led CPM is seen as a frontrunner and set to return to power.

The Nationalist Congress Party, which has lost ground in Meghalaya to Purno A. Sangma, is concentrating on Nagaland this time and has managed to have some senior leaders of the Congress and the NPF crossover to its side.

While 10 Assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and 20 for Scheduled Tribes in Tripura, 55 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes in Meghalaya and 59 in Nagaland.

According to the poll schedule, the last date for filing nominations in Tripura is January 28 and that of withdrawal of candidature is January 31. In Meghalaya and Nagaland, the last date for filing nominations is February 6 and that of withdrawal is February 9. The tenure of the state Assembly in Tripura expires on March 16, in Meghalaya on March 10 and in Nagaland on March 18.

The Election Commission will put up 3,018 polling stations in Tripura for 23.52 lakh voters.

In Meghalaya, 2,485 polling stations will cater to 14.81 lakh electors and Nagaland will have 2,023 polling stations for 11.81 lakh voters.

See Pages 15 and 16

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