With the Election Commission of India (ECI) expected to announce the poll schedule in Punjab anytime now, the main contenders - Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)-BJP combine, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have taken clear positions and are ready to fire.
The election promises to be a political thriller. Observers predict there may be extensive use of muscle power, money power, drug money and caste equations. It needs to be seen where the key political players are perched at this point of time before the polls are formally announced.
Don't write SAD-BJP off just yet
The ruling combine stands on a sticky wicket as it faces massive anti-incumbency after a decade in power. The government faces allegations of promoting drug abuse, fanning religious violence, failing to curtail the farm distress and farmer suicides, leading the state to a financial mess and doing nothing to check the rising unemployment.
Its opponents have been gunning for the combine over the last one year with the Congress state president Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP's national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal often taking the battle to the Badals' home turfs.
But the SAD-BJP may be down but are definitely not out. To begin with the Akali cadres are annoyed with the Badals - chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son cum deputy Sukhbir Badal, but not with the party. This is the biggest challenge that the party at large is facing as the Badals, mainly the chief minister, remain its face. If it can reign in annoyed cadres and prevent them from deserting, the Akali-BJP combine remains a force to reckon with.
"The arithmetic still favours them. Their Opposition vote is definitely going to split in a big way between the Congress and AAP. They just have to retain their cadre vote and look for the neutral voters to swing it their way once again," said a senior bureaucrat.
The BJP's larger game plan that it has initiated through its demonetisation exercise could also prove a silent killer in a way since this border state is always high on nationalism. The party has launched a 'Vijay Sankalp Yatra' in the state where its leaders are playing up demonetisation in a big way.
Meanwhile, the Akalis have been trying to make up the most at the fag end of their tenure showering the state with sops on daily basis, no matter how controversial they are. They are also playing on the narrative which prime minister Narendra Modi used effectively in Gujarat on running down all the criticism by terming it as an attempt to defame the state and attack Punjab's pride.
One can never underestimate Badal senior and his political acumen. He has proved it once again by managing to make sharing of Punjab's river waters a central poll issue and diverting attention from the issues of drugs and farm distress in a big way.
Captain leads the Congress' revival
SAD-BJP combine's traditional rival Congress is also going into the battle in a very aggressive mode. Till a few months back, the general mood in Punjab was that the biggest challenge to the Akalis would come from AAP which was being seen as a clear front runner. But Amarinder has been able to dispel this notion to a large extent.
While AAP remains a major force, it cannot be declared a winner at this point of time. Nobody expected that the Congress would bounce back to a level where it is now neck to neck with AAP in the race.
This has been possible mainly due to Amarinder's aggressive politics. Even the Congress' high command should take a leaf out of his book on how to reinvent themselves. The inputs from strategist Prashant Kishor have also been helpful. While the party has been able to take on the Badals and Akalis on traditional issues like water sharing and Panthic matters on one side, it has also reaped political benefits from the discord in the AAP ranks over the last four months. It has played competitive politics well on the issues.
For a change, the party has until now managed to put up a united face with the heavyweights having realised that this is perhaps their last chance to survive and start the party's resurgence at the national level.
However, it is feared that infighting might break out once the tickets for the remaining crucial seats are announced. The party's stakes remain very high. The party is experimenting with concepts like one ticket per family and giving tickets only on the basis of winability. Amarinder has already announced that this is his last election and is giving it his best shot. The party has also woven its campaign around him while still not naming him as its chief ministerial face.
How AAP changed Punjab's battlefield
However, it is the rookie AAP that has upset all the calculations ever since it won a surprise 4 seats from Punjab in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
It is placed at a point where several paradoxes have been at work. While the party has been witnessing rebellions on almost daily basis at the local level, voters continue to support it on the ground. The very logic given by the people for support often leaves one dumbfounded. "We want to teach the Akalis and the Congress a lesson. We have had enough of these two parties on alternate occasions and want to give the new party a chance no matter what the consequences are," said an old farmer near Sanaur some days back.
"AAP's rise is definitely a case study. For a party that was nowhere when Punjab witnessed historic movements and agitations, it now threatens to walk away with winner's crown since the people are offering unconditional support to them. It is unfortunate that their leadership is unable to hold on to this support," said an observer.
The party's biggest shortcoming remains the absence of a chief ministerial face. It remains a headless force fueled mainly by public support. Having lost ground in terms of its volunteers who rebelled against its choice of candidates and also after its state convener Succha Singh Chhotepur was sacked, its campaign has once again started picking up in the last few days. Despite both the Congress and the Akalis trying to run it down on traditional issues where it has had no concrete stand, the party remains a formidable force.
How the strategies of these players unravel in the days to come remains to be seen but as of now they are consolidating their position before the final assault.