The high-octane campaign for Maharashtra Assembly election ended today with the state set to witness a five-cornered contest for the 288-member House after 25 years.
With long-standing political alliances crumbling, the poll will test the mettle of four major parties--Congress, NCP, BJP and Shiv Sena individually, with Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena trying to emerge as the X factor in the keenly watched contest.
As in Lok Sabha poll five months ago, the Assembly election in Maharashtra is about Narendra Modi, who sought to unleash his personal charisma, carpet-bombing the state with a slew of rallies, evoking criticism from rivals but thrusting forward BJP as prime contender for power in the state for the first time without the crutches of former saffron ally Shiv Sena.
Fresh from a successful visit to the US, Modi launched himself into Maharashtra's electoral arena with a vengeance, addressing 27 rallies, rare by a Prime Minister in a state Assembly election, in the absence of a BJP leader with pan-Maharashtra appeal, following the death of Union Minister Gopinath Munde in a car crash soon after Lok Sabha poll.
During his campaign blitzkrieg, Modi focused on berating Congress and NCP for "colossal corruption" leading to state's "ruin" while showcasing Gujarat's development under him but steered clear of criticising BJP's estranged ally of 25 years Shiv Sena with which the party snapped ties just before the election.
Rally after rally, Modi invoked Shivaji to strike a chord with Marathi voters, prompting derision from Shiv Sena which said BJP never even cared to celebrate the birth anniversary of the Maratha king.
Though Modi avoided criticising Sena "out of respect for Bal Thackeray", his former ally did not shy away from repeatedly raking up the issue of "betrayal".
With his party contesting its first Assembly election in the absence of its founder Bal Thackeray and without saffron ally BJP by its side, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray also prominently raised the issue of "Marathi pride" and alleged move to divide Maharashtra.
Though Modi trashed accusations of BJP mulling creation of Vidarbha state if the party was voted to power, the Shiv Sena leader ensured it remained positioned prominently in the electoral discourse to seek polarisation of Marathi votes in other regions of the state.
While Modi said he will not allow Maharashtra to be split, other BJP leaders, including former party chief Nitin Gadkari, continued to strategically maintain that party favoured creation of smaller states, without specifically referring to Vidarbha. By keeping alive the Vidarbha issue BJP hopes to increase its tally from the drought-prone region.
Farmers' suicide, particularly in the Vidarbha region, was another topic Modi repeatedly harped on at his rallies.
Guns booming on the Indo-Pak border in Jammu and Kashmir after repeated ceasefire violations by Pakistan also resonated in Maharashtra's electoral arena.
Modi, facing flak for addressing a rush of poll rallies amid mounting tension on the border, tried to arouse nationalistic fervour in favour of his party by asserting that the "enemy has been taught a befitting lesson".
However, despite his claim of the "jawans shutting enemy's mouth", the "absentee" Prime Minister continued to be targeted by the rivals, including Uddhav, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and NCP boss Sharad Pawar.
Modi also faced flak from Raj Thackeray, a self-confessed former admirer, over ceasefire violations.
Drubbed in Lok Sabha poll, Raj also appeared going soft on estranged cousin Uddhav when he attacked BJP for breaking the saffron alliance.
He created a flutter in the midst of electioneering by revealing that he had sought to forge an alliance with Shiv Sena after it split with BJP but there was no response from the other side, triggering speculation about a post-poll coming together of the estranged cousins.
Other estranged former allies--Congress and NCP-- who called off their alliance after a 15-year shot at power in Maharashtra, largely avoided criticising each other and chose to train their guns on BJP and Modi, although Congress leaders sniffed a possible post-poll alliance between BJP and NCP.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, who joined the campaign rather late in the day, reminded the voters of steps taken by the UPA government for social sector reforms and checking usurpation of tribal and farm land by unscrupulous industrialists.
They attacked Modi over his government's failure to bring down the prices of essential commodities, tame inflation and its response to Pakistani aggression and incursion in Ladakh by the Chinese.
Former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who led his party's campaign in the state, would hope to capitalise on his clean image and Congress-NCP government's decisions like introducing reservation for the influential Marathas and Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions.
Rs 8,000 crore power subsidy for the farmers and infrastructure projects like Mumbai Metro and Eastern Freeway are other achievements showcased by the party during the campaign.
Despite its achievements on the development front, the erstwhile Congress-NCP dispensation came under fire from Modi for alleged corruption in irrigation schemes in parched swathes of Vidarbha, Adarsh scam and irregularities in implementation of mid-day meal scheme.
Even on the last day of electioneering, Modi addressed three rallies at Palghar, Ratnagiri and Kankavli. Apart from Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and a host of Union Ministers including Sushma Swaraj, Ravishankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and Ananth Kumar addressed rallies during the campaign.
Several top Congress leaders including P Chidambaram, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ajay Maken also went about stumping for party candidates.
An electorate of about 8.25 crore will choose from 4,119 candidates in the fray for October 15 poll, including 1,699 independents.
While Congress has fielded the largest number of 287 candidates, BJP has put up 280, Shiv Sena 282, NCP 278 and MNS 219