After months of highly charged rallies across the country, campaigning for Elections 2014 came to an end on Saturday with a final flourish in Varanasi - the biggest battlefield of this poll season.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi gestures to supporters from atop a truck as he makes his way through the streets of Varanasi during the final day of campaigning. (AFP photo)
Forty-one remaining seats across Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar and West Bengal are yet to give their mandate on May 12. Eighteen of the 41 seats are in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi among them. The BJP's PM pick, Narendra Modi, is pitted against Congress Ajay Rai and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal.
Returning Modi's fire on Saturday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi took out an impressive roadshow on the streets of Kashi, accompanied by party candidate Ajay Rai and several senior colleagues. The BJP "only wants to divide people", he said, five days after Modi stormed his constituency of Amethi.
A poster of Rajiv Gandhi adorned the vehicle following his open-top truck - a riposte to Modi, who had attacked the late PM in recent rallies. As the procession wound its way through Varanasi, Congress MPs Mahabal Mishra and Rajaram Pal were seen waiting for Rahul outside the Muslim-dominated Beniyabagh area, where Modi was denied permission to hold a rally days ago. It indicated the Congress' eagerness to win over the sizeable minority population, now openly expressing their preference for AAP candidate Arvind Kejriwal, who ended his campaign here with a roadshow too.
Later speaking in Chandauli, Rahul said,"Modiji, please change your poster. Say you will respect women and stop sending the police to tail them or tap their phones in Gujarat."
Read: Say you will respect women and stop sending police to tail them, Rahul takes dig at Modi
Rahul also took at dig at "Modi's model of securing the nation", saying the Gujarat chief minister gifted vast tracts of land to Adani Group at Rs. 1 per square metre but charged thousands of rupees from the Indian Air Force.
The Congress and the Samajwadi Party sought to muster a final show of strength on the last day of the campaigning, with both parties targeting the constituency's star contestant Modi.
Shortly after Rahul garlanded the statue of BHU founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and proceeded ahead, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav arrived here to turn the city into a sea of red.
He said Modi tried to exploit Ganga Arti, special prayers at the banks of the holy river, for political gains. The BJP leader had tweeted "an apology to Ganga Maa" after his party cancelled the prayers following a belated permission by the Election Commission.
Modi was in Robertsganj, another UP constituency that goes to polls with Varanasi in Monday's final phase. Continuing his attack on the "mother-son government," he appealed for a "strong mandate in Delhi to work for the people", saying, "Till you end dynastic politics, things won't improve."
The BJP's PM nominee had held two roadshows of his own in Varanasi, the more recent one on Thursday to protest the election commission's (EC) denial of permission for a rally in Beniyabagh. The area seemed to draw all the attention on Saturday as another big player, UP CM Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP), made sure his roadshow passed by.
Modi ended his day with a visit to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee's house and the RSS office in Delhi, and was also expected to meet senior party leaders returning from Varanasi later in the night. Writing his blog, he summed up his eight-month campaign as "extensive, innovative and satisfying".
Meanwhile, Mafioso-turned-Quami Ekta Dal leader Mukhtar Ansari, who gave a tough fight to BJP's MM Joshi in the last Lok Sabha polls, is out on parole. He may persuade Muslim voters to support the Congress.
The election commission is not taking any chances on security in Varanasi, one of the 18 remaining seats in the state that sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Around 25,000 security personnel along with 10,000 poll officials will be deployed across the constituency. "Every nook and corner of Varanasi has been mapped for security and polling deployment," said an EC official.
The world's biggest democratic exercise got rolling on March 5 with the EC announcing nine-phase elections to 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in 35 states and union territories. The 72-day electoral process ends with the counting of votes on May 16.
In a campaign marred with hate speeches, wild allegations and personal attacks, Modi never lost an opportunity to refer to Rahul as "shehzada (prince)" while the latter dismissed the Gujarat model of development as a "toffee" model even as Congress president Sonia Gandhi said, "God save India from the Gujarat model". The next front in the battle between Modi and the Gandhis saw Priyanka Gandhi Vadra aggressively take on the BJP strongman.
With political disclosure plumbing new lows, the EC barred the BJP's Amit Shah and Giriraj Singh and SP's Azam Khan from campaigning and came under attack itself, with parties like the BJP, Trinamool Congress and SP accusing it of bias.
All the action and noise came to an end at 6pm Saturday, after 66 days of high-voltage campaigning. But the battle continues.