New Delhi: Stage is set for Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana on Wednesday, one of the biggest electoral tests after the Lok Sabha polls for Narendra Modi, who spearheaded a high-decibel BJP campaign to wrest power from the opposition in what promises to be a close contest.
Maharashtra will witness a five-cornered contest for the 288-member House. An electorate of about 8.25 crore will choose from 4,119 candidates in the fray, including 1,699 Independents.
While Congress has fielded the largest number of 287 candidates, BJP has put up 280, Shiv Sena 282, NCP 278 and MNS 219.
With long-standing political alliances crumbling, the poll will test the mettle of four major parties--Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena individually, with Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena trying to emerge as the X factor in the keenly watched contest. The Congress-NCP combine has been ruling the state for 15 years.
Modi addressed 27 rallies, rare by a Prime Minister in a state Assembly election, in the absence of a BJP leader with pan-Maharashtra appeal, following the death of Union Minister Gopinath Munde in a car crash soon after Lok Sabha polls.
Haryana also witnessed a a high pitched campaign by Modi with an aim of bringing BJP to power in the state on its own for the first time and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi to ensure a third term for the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-led Congress government in the state.
About 1.63 crore voters, including 87.37 lakh women are eligible to vote at 16,357 polling stations to seal the fate of 1,351 candidates, including 109 women.
Modi criss-crossed Haryana addressing 11 election meetings at Sirsa, Gurgaon, Jind, Jagadhari, Sonipat and Rohtak.
The INLD campaign was led by former Chief Minister and party supremo Om Parkash Chautala, who was out on bail on health grounds after being imprisoned in Tihar Jail at New Delhi in the teachers recruitment scam.
Chautala's outing was cut short after the CBI approached the Delhi High Court, saying that the INLD chief was violating the bail terms by addressing election meetings.
The INLD leader was asked to surrender before the Tihar Jail authorities and he was back in prison on Saturday evening.
Counting of votes will be taken up on Sunday.
The Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana were all about Modi, who held a slew of rallies, evoking criticism from rivals but thrusting forward BJP as prime contender for power in the two states.
During his campaign blitzkrieg in Maharashtra, Modi attacked Congress and NCP for "colossal corruption" leading to state's "ruin" while showcasing Gujarat's development under him but steered clear of criticising BJP's estranged ally of 25 years Shiv Sena with which the party snapped ties just before the election.
Though Modi avoided criticising Sena "out of respect for Bal Thackeray", his former ally did not shy away from repeatedly raking up the issue of "betrayal".
Other estranged former allies--Congress and NCP-- who called off their alliance after a 15-year shot at power in Maharashtra, largely avoided criticising each other and chose to train their guns on BJP and Modi, although Congress leaders sniffed a possible post-poll alliance between BJP and NCP.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, who joined the campaign rather late in the day, reminded the voters of steps taken by the UPA government for social sector reforms and checking usurpation of tribal and farm land by unscrupulous industrialists.
Among the prominent candidates in the fray in Maharashtra include former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, former Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, state BJP President Devendra Fadnavis and Leader of Opposition in Assembly Eknath Khadse.
The campaign in Haryana saw the Prime Minister targeting Congress exploiting the controversy surrounding the land deals involving Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra, saying it symbolised the corruption of 10 years of Congress regime. He sought a majority for BJP, saying a hung Assembly will serve no one's interest.
The UPA chairperson addressed three meetings including at Tosham in Bhiwani district. Rahul Gandhi, Shakeel Ahmed, Raj Babbar, Amarinder Singh and Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda were the main campaigners for the Congress.
The top guns battling it out in Haryana include the kin of the three famous 'Lals'.
Unlike in the recent past, when the fight was mainly between Congress and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), a number of new players threw their hats in the ring this time.
Besides 90 each candidates of the BJP and Congress, BSP, CPI and CPI-M have put up 87, 14 and 17 candidates respectively.
The four state parties have put up a total of 251 candidates - INLD (88), HJC-BL (65), HLP (75) and HJCP-V (23).
INLD's ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which supports BJP in Punjab but is opposing the candidates of saffron party in Haryana, has put up two candidates.
Congress had failed to get the required majority of 45 in the 90-member state Assembly in the 2009 polls, but Bhupinder Singh Hooda managed to form the government after five Haryana Janhit Congress (BL) MLAs deserted their party and merged with the Congress, which also got the support of seven Independents and a lone BSP member.
Five HJC (BL) MLAs - Satpal Sangwan, Vinod Bhayana, Rao Narender Singh, Zile Ram Chochra and Dharam Singh Chhokar - had 'merged' the party with Congress leaving their party Chief Kuldeep Bishnoi, who was also elected, alone in HJC.