Gujarat votes today and a total of 371 candidates are in the fray for the 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state, where polling will be conducted in a single phase. The state's Chief Electoral Officer previously disclosed that out of the 572 nominations received, 120 had been rejected after scrutiny and another 81 candidates subsequently withdrew their nominations.
While several smaller parties are also in the running this time around - including former Vishwa Hindu Parishad chief Pravin Togadia's Hindustan Nirman Dal (HND) and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party - the big fight, true to the pattern will boil down to a one-on-one between the BJP and the Congress. These two parties have together fielded 52 candidates.
In the previous Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had managed a clean sweep but with the last state elections revealing the chinks in its armour, nobody expects the ruling party to replicate the 2014 success a second time.
In the December 2017 assembly polls, the Congress had put up a stiff fight winning 77 Vidhan Sabha seats against BJP's 99. In fact, this was the first time in over two decades that the ruling party's tally had dipped below the 100-mark and despite ferocious campaigns by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
The Congress had managed to wrest 16 seats from the BJP with no big state level leaders - it's veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela had quit the party months before the election. Rahul Gandhi had led the campaign alone, and roping in firebrand youth leaders like Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani helped in forging a Congress revival in the saffron bastion.
This time around, the party is reportedly confident that the party might bag at least four Lok Sabha seats in the Saurashtra region. It is also betting big on Anand in central Gujarat, and Banaskantha and Patan in north Gujarat. In addition, it is eyeing Dahod, Chhota Udepur and Sabarkantha.
But that's not to say that it's advantage Congress. Having won over a few top Congress leaders, including four-time MLA Jawahar Chavda in March, the BJP hopes to claw back lost ground in Saurashtra, accounting for seven Lok Sabha seats.
Interestingly, according to an analysis by the non-profit election research group Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), as many as 58 of contestants in the state have criminal cases registered against them. Among them, 34 nominees are facing serious offences including the charges of murder and attempt to murder under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). At 19, Independent candidates lead this pack, followed by the Congress, with nine contestants, and the BJP (5).
The battlelines, thus, are clearly drawn up, and India will know the verdict of Gujarat's 4.47 crore voters, of which 2.14 lakh are women, next month.
(With PTI inputs)