New Delhi: Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will pick new assemblies in elections on Nov 4 and Dec 13 and 17, respectively, in what will be a virtual straight fight between the ruling BJP and the Congress in both states.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) V.S. Sampath told media persons here that votes in both states will be counted Dec 20.
These will be the most important state elections since Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, voted in February-March this year, along with Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur.
Both Himachal Pradesh (68 seats) and Gujarat (182 seats) are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the Congress desperate to dislodge it.
The announcement came hours after Congress president Sonia Gandhi unleashed the party's campaign in Gujarat with a stinging attack on the BJP.
The Congress welcomed the polls and said these would not be a referendum on the performance of the central government.
"We welcome poll dates. Every election is a local election, even parliamentary elections are decided by local issues. No state poll is a referendum on the performance of the national government," Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told reporters later.
"The only one is the Lok Sabha poll, which we won decisively," he said.
BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy said: "We are sure of victory in the two states. Our workers have worked hard."
"We are making foolproof security arrangements in both states by deploying adequate strength of central police forces," said Sampath.
Armed police forces from other states would also be deployed in the two states for peaceful conduct of elections.
Sampath said there would be strict monitoring of expenditure by political parties and candidates as well as of "paid news".
"Paid news is a learning process for us," said Sampath, adding that "it will be monitored at the district, state and commission level".
He said all candidates would be required to open separate bank accounts and incur expenditure only from these accounts.
The Election Commission, Sampath said, expects "the highest standards" of conduct and neutrality in election work from officials.
"Their work will be under constant watch and scrutiny," he said, and added that the model code of conduct for political parties would be strictly enforced.
Sampath said the polling dates have been determined after taking into account climatic conditions, particularly in Himachal Pradesh, academic calendar, festivals, law and order, and availability of security forces.
The number of eligible voters in Himachal Pradesh is 45.16 lakh against 3.78 crore in Gujarat. The electors will be given their voting slips a few days before the polling dates, said Sampath.
To facilitate voting, the poll panel has increased the number of polling stations by 10 percent to 44,496 in Gujarat and by 16 percent in Himachal Pradesh to 7,252, he said.
The CEC said the candidates will have to file only one affidavit, from two required earlier, to provide information if they have been charged or convicted in any criminal case and declaring their assets and educational qualifications.
In Himachal Pradesh, the poll notification will be out on Oct 10 and the last date for withdrawal of nominations will be Oct 20. In Gujarat, the notification for phase I and II will be issued on Nov 17 and 23 respectively, and the last date for withdrawal of nominations will be Nov 28 and Dec 3 respectively.