Halfway through a chilly, windy "Magha", Punjab has warmed up to an unexpected no-wave election. As the state goes to polls on Monday, all straws in the wind portend a direct and tough tussle between old-time rivals - the incumbent Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine and the Congress - in most of the 117 seats of the Punjab assembly.
There is hardly any trick in the manual of election management that political combatants haven't used to whip up that elusive "hawaa" ad blitzkrieg, poaching games, last-minute dashes to the deras, and mega manifestoes with over-the-top freebies.
Still, none of the chief contestants are sure-footed, notwithstanding their gung-ho public demeanour. If the race to the Le Corbusier-designed seat of power in Chandigarh looks wide open, this is, in part, due to the profusion of vote-splitters on the electoral landscape. Apart from rebels and rookies, the wild cards of the Sanjha Morcha and the dera factor --religious sects, mostly within Sikhism, that command a considerable following of voters -- have made the elections unpredictable and could well hold the key to their outcome.
Even anti-incumbency ire - a silent killer in Indian elections - is disparate and diffused across the state, making a decidedly resurgent Congress sweat it out to touch that magic figure of 59 seats. Not surprisingly, a week before polling day, party general secretary Rahul Gandhi made an unprecedented break from Congress convention by anointing Captain Amarinder Singh its chief ministerial candidate - a final push to shore up the party's fortunes, hobbled the most by internal boat-rockers.
Meanwhile, the Akali-BJP alliance is betting on its trump card - performance - to take its best crack at a gravity-defying second coming - a feat that Punjab has never seen in its electoral history since 1970. If the Akalis appear to be steadfastly holding on to much of their rural citadels, mainly in Malwa region where 65 (more than half of total assembly seats) are at stake, their saffron ally, in the dumps until a few months ago, has dramatically retrieved some of its lost ground in urban constituencies.
Though nowhere close to repeating its dream run of 2007 when it won 19 of 23 seats contested, the BJP is back in the reckoning riding on the national issues of corruption and inflation.
Yet, if key contestants and pollsters are still hedging their bets, it has much to do with the biggest wild card of this election - Manpreet Singh Badal. Spearheading the Sanjha Morcha, a wobbly grouping of his People's Party of Punjab, the Left parties and a splinter Akali faction of Surjit Singh Barnala, the rebellious scion of the Badal clan has decidedly fallen short of turning what has long been a game of two musical chairs into a three-horse race.
Nevertheless, the former Punjab finance minister and four-time MLA has tenaciously pitch-forked himself as a potential spoiler.
Of all imponderables in this election, the first after delimitation recast Punjab's political map, the most hotly-debated one is : whom will the Manpreet missile dent more - the SAD-BJP alliance or the Congress? With no perceptible groundswell, the election result hinges heavily on the personality of top contenders. For the SAD, Brand Badal is the most bankable vote-catcher. Towering and tireless at 84, Parkash Singh Badal, fighting his last political battle, epitomises the biggest guarantor of social harmony in Punjab - an image that both Sikhs and Hindus swear by.
Pitted against him is Captain Amarinder Singh's reputation as a decisive, forward-looking leader.
Every election is also a statement of perception. The 2012 vote has come to represent vision, not vendetta. What augurs well for Punjab is an overarching futuristic agenda that all key players have spelt out while trying to match it with the voters' ever-soaring aspirations.
That is why it is jarring to see certain politicians' frenetic efforts to unabashedly play the dera card - a dangerous trend that may bedevil the state's social and religious fabric.in Punjab which makes them a potent factor in elections.
If Punjab has survived such dangerous play with fire in the past, it is because of the never-say-die spirit and innate sense of harmony of its people.
It is a moment of reckoning for the state. Development, or lack or it, and not the deras, ought to be the voters' - and politicians' - guiding factor.
Punjab today needs bold leadership, not blind loyalty.