Five Indian states, including the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, will go to polls next month even as the third wave of the Covid pandemic grips the country.
The Election Commission on Saturday announced the dates for the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand in northern India, Goa in the west, and Manipur in the northeast.
Uttar Pradesh will vote over seven phases, starting February 10. Polling will be held in
Punjab, Goa, and Uttarakhand on February 14. And Manipur will go for a two-phase poll -- on February 27 and March 3. The election results will be out on March 10.
Defending its decision to hold the elections despite an alarming surge in Covid cases in the country, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said, "The holding of timely elections is the essence of maintaining democratic governance."
However, in a first in the country, the top poll body announced a moratorium on election campaign till January 15. Post which, poll rallies can be held only from 8am to 8pm. At the same time, the Commission urged all political parties to go for a digital campaign.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in four of these five states, while the country's main opposition Congress party governs Punjab.
Uttar Pradesh with 403 assembly seats is crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party as it's said that the road to Delhi passes through Lucknow, its capital, and the party that wins the state stands a fair chance of forming the next federal government.
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Moreover, a win in Uttar Pradesh will be a major boost for the Prime Minister halfway through his second term in power. The general elections are due in India in 2024.
The announcement of the assembly polls came on a day when India recorded nearly 1.42 lakh new Covid cases, including 3,007 of the Omicron variant, in 24 hours.
Just a day before, the federal government set out new Covid-19 rules, making a seven-day quarantine mandatory for international passengers. The rules effective January 11 came in the wake of an exponential rise in Omicron cases across the country.
And three days ago, India reported its first Omicron death in the northwestern state of Rajasthan's Udaipur city. The 73-year-old victim, Laxminarayan Nagar, tested positive for Covid on December 15.
The man who had multiple comorbidities but was doubly vaccinated, succumbed to the Omicron strain of the coronavirus in the early hours of December 31, according to officials.
Omicron has been classified as "a variant of concern" by the World Health Organisation.
In fact, alarmed by the rising Omicron cases, India's federal government in mid-December warned states that "the variant is three times more transmissible than the Delta" and directed them to take action to rein in its spread.