Elections to the Legislative Assemblies in four States and a Union Territory are set to send temperatures soaring through April-May. While Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as also Puducherry, will this time have single-phase polling, Assam will do it in two phases, as in 2006. West Bengal will, however, have the process in six phases. It has 294 constituencies, the largest number among the States in the fray. But as the Election Commission indicated, the stretching stems also from a perception of major law and order challenges. In truth, this reading can only derive from depredations by Maoist elements — thriving in a climate of political collaboration with the Trinamool Congress and, indirectly, with its ally, the Congress. Significantly, the ruling Left Front in the State has welcomed the decision to spread out polling. In its 34th consecutive year in power in eastern India's largest State, the CPI(M)-led Left Front has reason to be proud of its long-term record of governance in key areas, above all land reform. The 2009 Lok Sabha election in the State dealt the Left a severe blow, exposing an eroded base, and it remains to be seen whether anything has changed since then. In any case, given the animosities and the ideological intensity of the battle in this State, the Election Commission of India faces a major test this time. This calls for a heightened level of preparedness, anticipation, and monitoring.

The challenge will be of a different character in Tamil Nadu. Here the Election Commission's carefully structured machinery, which includes observers and micro-observers, will have its task cut out in checking the play of money power, muscle power, and misuse of the administrative machinery and the police. In a clever populist gambit, the DMK government managed to reduce the sales tax on petrol just before the Model Code of Conduct kicked in, although the next day its ongoing scheme of distributing free TV sets was ordered stopped. Assam will witness relatively peaceful conditions on the ground this time, with the United Liberation Front of Asom engaging in talks with the government. Given the political culture, Kerala elections rarely face law and order problems worth the name. This is the first time non-resident Indians will be able to exercise the franchise, provided they are in India. There are other issues that wait to be addressed and resolved, which the Election Commission and other bodies have broadly grouped under the head of electoral reform. There is also the challenge of preventing, and cracking down on, the vice of ‘paid news,' which came to the fore in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. How the media conduct themselves this time, and how the Election Commission goes about rooting out this shameful corruption of journalism and the democratic process, will be watched with keen interest.

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