Punjab could end up as anybody's game when the state votes Wednesday, with the Congress putting up a spirited fight to the BJP and the AAP making a serious bid.
BJP leader Narendra Modi, addressing five back to back rallies within a span of eight hours in Punjab Friday, was certainly not an indicator of the state being swept by the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance.
With the Congress, which has fielded top leaders like former chief minister Amarinder Singh breathing down the alliance's neck and new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too making a serious bid, the election to 13 Lok Sabha seats from Punjab has turned interesting.
The fact that Modi even addressed rallies in Bathinda and Amritsar, which the Akali Dal-BJP combine had been projecting as its `safe' seats, is an indicator that the alliance is not taking any chances.
If the Congress is feeling the heat of a general wave against its UPA government, Punjab is witnessing an under-current of anti-Akali Dal feeling among voters.
Punjab's electorate of over 19.5 million, including over 900,000 recently enrolled voters, will decide the fate of 253 candidates April 30. The state had witnessed a high turnout of 70 percent in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and the Election Commission (EC) is expecting this to go up by almost 10 percent this time.
For the Bathinda seat, sitting Akali Dal MP Harsimrat Badal, daughter-in-law of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and wife of Akali Dal president and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal, is seeking re-election. Challenging her on a Congress-People's Party of Punjab (PPP) joint ticket is Badal senior's estranged nephew and former finance minister Manpreet Badal.
The Amritsar seat is Punjab's battle royale. Here, senior BJP leader and leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley is the Akali Dal-BJP candidate. He is pitted against Congress strongman Amarinder Singh. The BJP dumped its sitting MP, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, who could not get along with the Badals and Punjab BJP leaders, to field `outsider' Jaitley.
Other big leaders in the fray include Punjab Congress president and sitting MP Pratap Singh Bajwa against three-time BJP MP and actor Vinod Khanna for the Gurdaspur seat, union Minister and Amarinder's wife Preneet Kaur (Congress) for Patiala, former union minister Ambika Soni (Congress) for Anandpur Sahib, comedian-actor Bhagwant Mann (AAP) for Sangrur and lawyer-activist H.S. Phoolka (AAP) for Ludhiana.
During his rally in Amritsar, Modi not only told voters how important Jaitley would be once the NDA government was formed at the centre but also sang paeans for Jaitley.
To oust Sidhu from Amritsar, a seat he won in 2004, 2007 (by-election) and 2009, the Badals and BJP leaders urged Jaitley to contest, giving him an impression that the seat would be a cakewalk for him. Jaitley, who is contesting a popular election for the first time and has been a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat for nearly 15 years, found himself in the thick of a bitter electoral battle when the Congress fielded Amarinder Singh.
The Congress, which had won eight seats in 2009, is not letting the Akali Dal-BJP take it easy on any of the seats. The Akalis won four seats last time while the BJP won one seat.
The entry of AAP will change the equations on at least 7-8 seats in the state. Some of the AAP candidates like Bhagwant Mann, H.S. Phoolka and cardiologist-social activist Dharamveer Gandhi have the potential to be winners in a tight contest on their respective seats. AAP is getting support from the middle class, youth and even Punjab's peasantry.
Keeping all leaders and parties guessing, Punjab's electorate is also beating any attempt to polarise votes. The outcome, hence, remains uncertain.