Campaigning for the assembly polls in Punjab ended on Sunday, amidst unseasonal rains that could affect turnout during the elections on February 13.
The campaigning was dominated by no-holds barred electioneering by the ruling Congress and opposition Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance on issues like development and terrorism.
Polling to 115 of 117 seats of the Punjab Assembly will be held amidst tight security, with about 200 companies of paramilitary forces and police being deployed to ensure incident-free voting by 1.66 crore voters who will decide the fate of 1,038 candidates at 16,509 polling stations.
Voting in the two constituencies of Beas in Amritsar and Valtoha in Tarn Taran district has been deferred to March 11 and February 24 respectively.
Counting of votes in 116 constituencies will be done on February 27, while that of Beas will take place later.
The two main contestants -- the ruling Congress and the opposition SAD-BJP alliance -- conducted a no-holds barred campaign against each other.
Observers believe a tough fight is on the cards as there seems to be no wave in the state to place either the Congress or the Akalis in a clear winning position though Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and leader of opposition in the outgoing Assembly, Parkash Singh Badal, confidently claim they are set to come to power.
The last two days of campaigning were marred by heavy rain, which forced Congress president Sonia Gandhi to cancel her rallies at Rampura Phul in Bhatinda district and Sirhind in Fatehgarh Sahab district.
A number of other rallies were also affected by the rains.
While the Congress promised to 'redouble its efforts to achieve high socio-economic growth with peace, equality and morality', the SAD-BJP alliance said it would provide 'people's rule with dignity'.
The Congress took the lead in releasing its manifesto and, in the process, managed to attract various sections of society with its please-all announcements, including promises to provide wheat and atta at Rs 2 a kg and pulses at Rs 20 a kg to the 'poorest of the poor'.
Noting that the country and Punjab were braving a fight between two ideologies -- that of the Congress and communal forces -- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned voters to desist from giving a chance to 'terrorist forces' to come forward in Punjab.
He said amity and peace are essential for all round development.
The SAD committed itself to 'a comprehensive recast of economic priorities, putting the rural and urban poor at the core of a bold and futuristic vision for growth and development' and resolved to fight poverty, price rise and unemployment.
Though the Congress claimed it had provided a corruption-free transparent governance and worked for the state's development in the past five years, the CPI, its ally in the 2002 Assembly polls, brushed this aside and said the party was involved 'deep in corruption'.
"Money collected through corruption is being used in the election," CPI general secretary A B Bardhan alleged.
Other key campaigners included A B Bardhan (CPI), Prakash Karat (CPI-M), Mayawati (BSP), Uma Bharti (BJSP), Om Parkash Chautala (INLD),and film and TV stars like Hema Malini, Shatrughan Sinha, Smriti Irani, Om Puri and Mukesh Khanna.
Punjab Congress chief Shamsher Singh Dullo has entered the fray from Khanna SC constituency after the party denied renomination to his wife Harbans Kaur, while former chief minister Beant Singh's son Tej Parkash Singh and daughter Gurkanwal Kaur have been re-nominatedfrom Payal and Jalandhar Cantonment constituencies respectively.
Key contestants include Badal's nephew Manpreet Singh Badal (SAD, Gidderbaha) and his son-in-law Adesh Partap Singh Kairon (SAD, Patti).
TheSAD president's cousin Mahesh Inder Singh Badal has been fielded by the Congress against him. A number of sitting legislators of the Congress and SAD are also in the fray.
Others in fray include the father-son combination of SAD (Amritsar) president Simranjit Singh Mann (Dhanoula) and Imaan (Sirhind), Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal's son Inder Iqbal Singh (SAD, Kum Kalan), former SGPC chief Jagir Kaur (Bholath),Tamil Nadu Governor Surjit Singh Barnala's son Gaganjit, who was recently booked by police in an alleged rape case and has been renominated from Dhuri in Sangrur district.
The number of women candidates has come down from 71 five years ago to 54.
There are just four constituencies -- Amritsar Central, Jalandhar Cantonment, Chamkaur Sahib (SC) and Kharar --where the number of contesting women is more than one.
The key women recontesting include Deputy Chief Minister Rajinder Kaur Bhattal (Congress, Lehra), Gurkanwal Kaur (Congress, Jalandhar Cantt), Jagir Kaur (SAD, Bholath), Mohinder Kaur Josh (SAD, Sham Chaurasi) and Upinderjit Kaur (SAD, Sultanpur Lodhi).
The maximum number of 18candidates each will be in the fray in Ludhiana rural and Patiala town constituencies, where Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is among the candidates.
The lowest number of candidates -- three --is in Dasuya constituency in Hoshiarpur district.
Boththe main claimants to power belong to the state's Malwa region, which plays a crucial role in politics. It includes Patiala and Muktsar districts in which the native places of Amarinder Singh and Badal fall.
Theregion, which includes Bhatinda, Faridkot, Moga, Sangrur, Fatehgarh Sahab, Ferozepur and Mansa districts, is politically active.
Rebel candidates are a matter of concern for both the Congress and the SAD-BJPalliance.
TheBJP also has to contend with the division of its vote bank due to fielding of candidates by Uma Bharti's party.
The Congress won 62 seats in the 2002 polls, when it wrested power from the SAD-BJP combine, which bagged only 44seats. The CPI won two seats and independents nine in the last elections.
Meanwhile, Punjab's top police officer said on Sunday that over 64,000police and paramilitary personnel have been deputed for ensuring free, fair and peaceful elections.
Out of these, more than 50,000 are from Punjab and 14,000are from paramilitary forces, DGP R S Gill said.
Out of the total 10,262 polling locations in the state, 1258 and 3065have been identified as hypersensitive and sensitive respectively, he said.