Punjab is set for a three-cornered tussle with the Congress vying with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to dethrone the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) combine that is in power since March 2007.
Despite a visible anti-SAD wave sweeping across Punjab no party seems surefooted.
The fate of the Congress’ race for power after 10 years of political exile and the determined bid of the AAP to rule Punjab after Delhi will be decided by near 2 crore voters of the border state on Saturday.
There are 1,145 candidates, including independents, in the fray.
The Election Commission (EC) has put in place elaborate security arrangements across 22,600 polling stations where voting will begin at 8am and end at 5pm. The polling will be held under the vigil of about 500 companies or 36,000 soldiers of paramilitary forces and over 60,000 Punjab police personnel.
It is for the first time that Punjab’s politics is witnessing a three-horse race that officially began on January 4 after the EC announced a single-phase election for the 117 assembly seats in this border state.
There are indications that a tough contest is on the cards among Congress, AAP and SAD-BJP in the 69 seats of Malwa region. The fight in 23 seats of Doaba and 25 segments of Majha is between Congress and SAD-BJP, barring a few seats where AAP is in the reckoning.
In the 2012 assembly elections, the Congress’ vote share was 40.09%, SAD fetched 34.73% votes, while BJP 7.18% and the rest went to others. Congress won 9 seats in Majha, SAD 11 and BJP 5, while in Doaba Congress won 6, SAD 11, BJP 5 and independent 1. In Malwa, Congress tally was 31 seats, SAD 34, BJP 2 and independent 2.
In the outgoing House, the SAD had 60 MLAs, Congress 42, BJP 12, and three independents.
Political pundits say the AAP and the nearly 10 key Congress rebels, who will eat into the anti-incumbency vote, are a major problem for the Congress in its bid to form the government.
During the four-week election campaign, political parties used all management tricks to shore up the fortunes of their respective candidates.
The SAD-BJP pulled out all the stops much before the code of conduct came into force by opening its coffers to dole out sops to every section of voters and blunt the anti-incumbency tone with the elusive hope to score a hat-trick.
The Congress and AAP tried to give SAD-BJP run for its money in the populism game and announced a plethora of freebies.
Palpable anti-incumbency, Panthic anger over incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, business interests, and dynastic politic were the key issues the Congress and AAP raised to the hilt to demolish the SAD. And the SAD’s much-touted development plank failed to take off.
While the Congress led by Captain Amarinder Singh launched a high-octane campaign, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal spearheaded his ‘broom’s assault.
SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal led the party’s campaign with dogged determination and the tireless party patron Parkash Singh Badal, who also came under a shoe attack, were the prime vote catchers for the party.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also campaigned aggressively. The campaigning saw all players getting locked in a spiteful verbal duel and sparing no opportunity to trade charges and counter-charges.
The nagging suspense - or the question who will be next Punjab CM - will be clear on March 11, the day the verdict will be declared.