Vote 2009 enters the penultimate round, with polling in 85 Lok Sabha seats across eight states on Thursday, in what is seen as a crucial phase for the Congress that’s eyeing big gains in Rajasthan, West Bengal and Punjab.
On its part, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be looking to cut possible losses in Rajasthan, while the Left Front battles to retain its electoral stronghold in West Bengal.
Then there is Delhi, where the Congress won six out of seven seats in 2004 and is hoping for a repeat.
<b1>On the eve of polling, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said she was confident that Congress would sweep Delhi. “A performing government, committed to development, is our message to the voters,” she said, referring to 1.1 crore voters in the capital city.
Across India, about 9.5 crore people are eligible to vote on Thursday, which will take the total number of seats polled to 457. The remaining 86 seats will go to the polls on May 13.
Congress stalwart Pranab Mukherjee (73), BJP President Rajnath Singh (57) along with regional satraps Lalu Prasad (60) of Rashriya Janata Dal, Mulayam Singh Yadav (69) of Samajwadi Party and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah (72) are among the 1,315 candidates in the fray.
In this round, Congress is defending 27 seats that it had won in 2004, followed by rival BJP that's battling to retain 25 seats, most of them in Rajasthan that's voting in one go.
The BJP, pollsters say, could see some unexpected gains in western Uttar Pradesh, where 17 seats are voting.
In this region, it is also a test for Mulayam Singh whose party had won 10 seats in an alliance with Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). This time the RLD has switched to BJP.
Election managers from the Congress party have high hopes from this round, which could either add a good number of seats to its total tally or offset losses elsewhere.
In the outgoing Lok Sabha, Congress had only four seats from Rajasthan compared to BJP's 21. Congress' hopes to improve its tally rest on the defeat of BJP in assembly elections in the state, held in December.
There are also gains to be made in Punjab, where the ruling Akali Dal-BJP alliance is battling anti-incumbency.
In West Bengal — 17 out of the states' 42 seats vote on Thursday — the Left Front faces a tough fight from the Congress-Mamata Banerjee combine.
In Haryana, the Congress is on the defensive, trying to retain the nine seats out of 10 it had won last time. This time, it faces a formidable alliance of BJP and local INLD.