Raipur: Eighteen of the 90 assembly constituencies in Chhattisgarh where Maoists hold sway will vote Monday, heralding the biggest popularity test involving five states ahead of next year`s Lok Sabha battle.
Both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress are equally confident of winning the election, the second and final phase of which will be held Nov 19.
Chief Minister Raman Singh says the people of Chhattisgarh, carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, are sure to give his government a third five-year term because of the way he has developed the state.
"Development is the key issue, I tried my level best and it`s for the voters to decide," Raman Singh said Saturday evening, soon after campaigning ended in the 18 constituencies.
The Congress` key campaigner and Chhattisgarh`s first chief minister Ajit Jogi feels the BJP will be ousted.
"The Congress is set to make a grand comeback in Chhattisgarh because the state has witnessed a massive rise in Maoist violence and also corruption during BJP rule," he said.
A total of 143 candidates will be in the fray Monday, their fate to be decided by about 2.9 million voters.
The sprawling region going to the polls Monday includes Bastar region, which with around 40,000 sq km is bigger than the size of Kerala, and the neighbouring Rajnandgaon district.
Bastar accounts for 12 assembly constituencies and Rajnandgaon six. Together, this mineral rich area -- with dense forests and Maoist hideouts -- is infamously known as the red zone.
The BJP holds 12 of these 18 seats, and it will need to do equally well if not better if it wants to retain control of Chhattisgarh. In 2003, the BJP won 11 of 12 seats in Bastar and four out of six in Rajnandgaon.
Monday`s polling will decide the fate of several key leaders that include Raman Singh (from Rajnandgaon) and three of his cabinet colleagues -- Vikram Usendi (Antagarh), Lata Usendi (Kondagaon) and Kedar Kashyap (Narayanpur).
The top leaders of both the BJP and Congress raised the election pitch in the last few days.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hit the campaign trail. For the BJP, its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was the biggest crowd puller.
BJP patriarch LK Advani and senior party leaders Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, M Venkaiah Naidu and Raman Singh also wooed the voters.
Meanwhile, the boycott call given by Maoist insurgents has put a big question on how fair and peaceful the electoral exercise will be Monday.
The administration has deployed 400 companies of paramilitary forces in addition to state police force. A large number of central forces are already in the area fighting the Maoists.
"The best ever security arrangements have been put in place for the 18 seats where Maoists have held sway in the interior regions for about three decades," Chhattisgarh`s Director General of Police Ramnivas said.
With poverty ruling the lives of most tribals, the main campaign themes turned out to be economic development, corruption, security concerns and bonus paid for paddy cultivation.
Although most of the 18 seats will see direct contests between the BJP and the Congress, dissidents from both sides have altered the game in many seats.
Some of the dissidents are in the fray as independent candidates while others are making a bid to settle the score by eating into their original parties` vote base.
Former Lok Sabha member Karuna Shukla, niece of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who quit the BJP, made waves by backing Alka Mudliyar in Rajnadgaon against none other than Raman Singh.
Along with Chhattisgarh, elections will also be held in the coming days in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Mizoram. The results in all states will be known Dec 8.