India braces for BJP-Congress electoral battlesNational/Politics

New Delhi, Feb 13 (IANS) Beginning Thursday, nine states will go to the polls this year before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) set to take on each other in five major states.

The string of contests will be a window to assess the Indian electorate ahead of a decade of rule by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

Three states in the northeast will see balloting this month: Tripura (Feb 14) and Meghalaya and Nagaland (both Feb 23). Mizoram will follow later in the year.

While the Congress is a player in all northeastern states, the BJP is not.

So their political clout will be tested when elections take place in Delhi, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh later in the year. This battle will be crucial for both the Congress and the BJP.

While the Congress rules in Delhi and Rajasthan, the BJP is in power in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

In Tripura, the Congress hopes to put up a good fight against the ruling Left Front, more so since the Trinamool Congress has decided not to put up candidates.

Manik Sarkar, who has been the Tripura chief minister for 15 long years, and his Communist Party of India-Marxist are equally confident of a victory.

In Meghalaya, the ruling Meghalaya United Alliance headed by Chief Minister Mukul Sangma will face a spirited challenge from former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma's National People's Party.

In Nagaland, the Naga People's Front of Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio is pitted against the Congress headed by T. Yepthomi.

The December electoral win in Himachal Pradesh boosted the Congress, but it was routed by the BJP in Gujarat.

Winning in Delhi for the fourth consecutive time is expected to be an uphill task for Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, particularly after the gang-rape of a young woman in December that triggered national outrage.

A new player in Delhi is going to be anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Admi Party.

Factional feuds in the Madhya Pradesh Congress may prove to a hindrance to the party's desire to unseat Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who has ruled the state for a decade.

The Congress is not too strong in Chhattisgarh either and will find it difficult to take on BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh, who has the reputation of an efficient administrator.

Karnataka, which goes to the polls mid-year, is one state where the BJP is at war within, giving a ray of hope to the Congress.

The exit from the BJP of former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, who now heads the Karnataka Janata Party, is expected to dent the BJP's vote share.

But that itself is no guarantee that the Congress will win. In any case, Karnataka has a third player -- the Janata Dal-Secular.

In Rajasthan, Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot will face a tough fight from newly-appointed BJP state unit chief Vasundhara Raje, a former chief minister.

The Bahujan Samaj Party has varying influence in all the five major states.

A string of national and local issues will dominate the election campaign in all the election-bound states.

These include rising food prices, corruption, governance and economic development.

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