After months of a highly-charged campaign, polling in India's marathon national elections comes to a close today with an estimated 95 million people expected to exercise their franchise in 41 constituencies.
The focus in today's exercise will of course be the 18 seats in the crucial eastern part of Uttar Pradesh where the electoral fate of 328 candidates, including BJP's Narendra Modi, Aam Aadmi Party founder Arvind Kejriwal and Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav will be decided.
The mother of all electoral battles will be fought in the temple town of Varanasi, where Modi is making his parliamentary polls debut and is pitted against Kejriwal and Congress' candidate Ajay Rai, a local backed by Mukhtar Ansari's Quami Ekta Dal (QED).
Modi has chosen Varanasi for a contest because of its high symbolic value from the point of view of the Hindu religion and it remains to be seen if his appeal can cut across caste divides in the constituency.
The holy town has an estimated 3 lakh Muslim voters for which a close is race on between Congress and AAP.
Of these 18 seats, where caste equations and a sizable presence of Muslim voters are going to play a deciding factor, Samajwadi Party had clinched six seats from the region, BSP led by Mayawati 5, BJP 4 and Congress 3 in 2009 Lok Sabha polls. BSP had ended up in the second place in 12 of the 18 seats.
The Election Commission yesterday issued a show cause notice on Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal for his alleged remarks in Amethi that even if a single vote is cast in favour of Congress and BJP, then it will be "treachery against God and the country".
Noting that prima facie he violated the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct, the Commission has given him time till May 13 evening to present his views on the matter, failing which the poll body will take a decision without further reference to him, reports PTI.
Acting on a complaint by the BJP, it said that addressing a public meeting on May 2 in Amethi, Kejriwal allegedly said, "If any person in Amethi votes for Congress, then don't feel bad (for the remarks) he will commit treachery against the country....Have I said something wrong...., am I saying too much....I once again say even if a single vote is cast to Congress or BJP then you will commit treachery against God and country."
Mulayam Singh Yadav, besides sticking to his traditional bastion in Mainpuri constituency, has thrown his hat into the ring from Azamgarh too.
However, unlike Mainpuri, the contest in Azamgarh may not be a cakewalk for Yadav who faces a tough fight from BSP's Shah Alam, Rashtriya Ulema Council Chief Aamir Rashadi Madana, and Mulayam's own former associate Ramakant Yadav who is fighting on a BJP ticket.
While Mulayam is banking on his traditional Muslim-Yadav vote bank, division of Muslim votes by Madani and Guddu Jamali could benefit Ramakant.
What has added to the intense battle for the 18 seats going to the polls in Uttar Pradesh tomorrow is a reported late surge by Yadav's party in retrieving its space among Muslims voters which had been lost in the wake of the SP government's handling of riots and relief operations in Muzaffarnagar in the state.
BJP is reported to be facing a challenge in the 18 seats with its ramshackle organizational presence and it remains uncertain if the perceived Modi wave can sweep aside the traditional caste fault lines which play an important role in voting in the areas.
India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, has 543 elected seats. Any party or coalition needs a minimum of 272 MPs to form a majority government.
The first phase of polling started on April 7; votes will be counted on 16 May.
The other key state to watch out for today is West Bengal, which has a total of 42 parliamentary seats, where the final phase of polling will cover 17 seats which are crucial for Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress as it had won 14 of the seats in 2009. Voted out of power in May 2011, CPI (M), the largest Left party in the state, had failed to win a single of the 17 seats.
Prominent among the 188 candidates are in fray tomorrow are senior Trinamool leader Sudip Bandopadhyay in Kolkata North, Dinesh Trivedi in Barrackpore and Sougata Roy in Dum Dum, besides celebrities like Tollywood actor Dipak Adhikari (Dev) in Ghatal, another actor Tapas Paul in Krishnagar and Trinamool youth wing President Abhishek Banerjee, nephew of Mamata Banerjee.
Among other leading contestants in West Bengal today are CPI-M's Subhasini Ali in Barrackpore seat, well-known magician PC Sorcar (Junior) of BJP in Barasat, West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury in Berhampore and senior CPI (M) leader Asim Dasgupta.
The voter turnout in today's phase of polling will be of immense interest. The main point to be seen is whether it can replicate the trend of high voter participation witnessed in all the previous eight rounds of polling which began rolling on April 7.
If there is no dramatic fall in polling figures tomorrow, the 2014 parliamentary elections will set a new record in voter turnout.
Polling figures in the 502 seats so far have already crossed the previous high of 63.56 per cent in 1984 and posted a new benchmark of 66.27 percent, according to Election Commission data.