With the Election Commission of India (ECI) announcing the 2017 Assembly Poll schedule, the die has been cast for one of the most bitter electoral fights in the north-western state of Punjab.
The 1,92,14,236 voters registered, as of now, will be exercising their right to franchise in 22,600 polling stations across the state on 4 February. There are 117 assembly constituencies in the state out of which 34 are reserved.
With the model code of conduct coming into force with immediate effect, the state is expecting a no-holds-barred campaign in the coming days from the contending parties among whom the three main forces are the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
AAP is the new force that has emerged and is threatening the two traditional players to walk away with the victor's crown. Other political forces including the BSP and several regional parties are also in the fray.
Mark your calenders
The ECI has fixed the date of notification for the polls for 11 January
The last date for filing nominations is 18 January
The scrutiny of nominations will take place on 19 January
The last date for withdrawal of candidature is 21 January
Polling will be held on 4 February
Counting of votes will take place on 11 March
ECI will complete the electoral exercise by 15 March
The state has 117 assembly constituencies spread over three regions of Malwa, Majha and Doaba with the Malwa region accounting for more than 50% of the seats. The last Assembly elections saw the SAD-BJP combine winning 65 seats while the Congress managed to win only 46. Three seats had been won by the independents.
The main contenders have already been campaigning in the state for almost one year. To begin with, the ruling SAD-BJP combine has spent the last year of its reign showering sops on the electorate. The last few days have also witnessed large-scale transfers of administrative and police officers across the state much to the discomfort of their opponents. In fact, the last transfer orders were reportedly made a couple of hours before the announcement of the poll schedule.
The AAP leadership has been carrying out its campaign for almost one and a half years now. It began with highly localised campaigns on the ground establishing one-to-one contact with the masses. Now AAP leaders are addressing bigger rallies.
The Congress started late after the old war horse Captain Amarinder Singh was once again asked to lead the party into the poll battle around one year ago. Since then the party has been gradually gaining ground and very aggressive politicking by Amarinder has brought the party at par with AAP.
The right issues
This will be an election where multiple important issues will dominate the electoral debate in the days to come.
The most important issue for this primarily rural state remains agriculture. With the state witnessing acute farm distress along with farmer suicides, this issue forms the core of the campaign for both AAP and the Congress even as the Akalis have been trying to take the route chosen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to confront his detractors. SAD has been denying farm distress and saying that the Opposition is out to defame Punjab.
The issue of massive drug abuse along with the law and order situation being in the pits is another issue on which the polls are to be fought.
With the youth taking to synthetic drugs in a big way and the spiralling crime graph marked by gang wars, political parties are expected to slug it out over these agendas. The ruling alliance will remain on the defensive on this issue while both AAP and the Congress try to garner maximum public support demanding answers and promising solutions.
Related to this menace is the issue of unemployment. With the industrial development in the state on a downslide and the economy hit hard by demonetisation, the lack of jobs will be played up by the Akali opponents in a big way.
Demonetisation will remain a key issue as its cascading impact continues to be felt across the rural hinterland where there are still long lines outside ATMs and people are not being able to make withdrawals.
The issue might work to the advantage of the BJP in the urban areas where it will be contesting for 23 seats in alliance with the Akalis.
The BJP leaders are working hard to prove the Modi narratives on black money and cashless economy to the urban electorate. But there are no buyers for those in the rural areas.
The simmering undercurrent of religion too will play its part in these polls given the fact that Punjab has witnessed a series of incidents where holy books of various faiths have been desecrated over the last year and a half. Coupled with this has been the attacks on the heads of various religious sects.
It goes to the credit of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal who has managed to make the issue of sharing of Punjab's river waters one of the key issues of the upcoming polls.
It was Badal who set the agenda on the construction of Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal in the Budget Session of the state Assembly. He compelled his opponents to enter into a political fight over the issue and he is expected to play it up in a big way in the days to come. The state has already witnessed a lot of theatrics over the issue.
Picking the right weapons
The Akalis are expected to keep their campaign centred around the developments, particularly those related to infrastructure, besides emotive issues of the SYL and the partisan treatment Punjab has received from the successive Congress regimes at the Centre.
The issue of Operation Bluestar and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots that had followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 will also be raised both by the Akalis and the AAP leaders from time to time.
Apart from this, the parties will be playing out local issues in various pockets like atrocities against Dalits in parts of Malwa and Doaba, agriculture scams in Malwa and security issues in Majha.
As of now, AAP is leading the race in terms of having announced the maximum number of candidates. The party has to announce three more candidates to make its list complete.
While the SAD is also close behind with less than 10 candidates left to announce, the Congress, as usual, is still to come out with its list of 40 candidates. The BJP too is yet to announce any candidate.
While AAP has announced the candidature of its top guns, the Akalis and the Congress are holding their cards close for now, except for that of Amarinder who will be contesting from his home turf of Patiala.
The Akalis are expected to field former Army Chief General (Retired) JJ Singh against him and make it one of the most spectacular political fights of this election.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen