BENGALURU, Karnataka: Reporters have descended on India's Silicon Valley to cover the culmination of the hard-fought Assembly election, described by analysts as the "semifinal" to the general election in 2019.
Karnataka, presently under the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government, was the first southern state where the BJP came to power in 2008. Four years of mis-governance, corruption and infighting led to a crushing defeat in the 2013 state election. Its chief minister, BS Yeddyuruppa, who wields considerable influence in the Lingayat community, was arrested in connection with alleged land scams, and formed his own party in 2013.
Now Yeddyuruppa is back, and the BJP is hoping to consolidate its gains from the 2014 general election when the Modi wave means the party won 17 of 28 Lok Sabha seats.
A win today would leave the BJP just two states and one Union Territory away from actualizing Modi's dream of a "Congress-mukt Bharat."
The election, which saw Modi take on Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, is first and foremost a test for Rahul Gandhi, to see if the Congress really can emerge as a viable alternative to be BJP in 2019.
For the Congress, as one senior party official put it, Karnataka is a "do or die" battle.
The Congress leader explained that a loss would make it harder to pitch Rahul Gandhi as the leader of a potential third front to challenge the BJP in 2019. Gandhi, during the election campaign in Karnataka, said that he could be prime minister if the Congress would come to power.
But first the Congress needs to counter the BJP's tried and testing formula for winning elections.
During the course of the state election, BJP's lawmaker from Belagavi, Sanjay Patil, declared, "This election is not about road, drainage or drinking water. This election is about Hindu and Muslim religions."
Hindutva, in this election campaign, was not confined to the coastal belt, a stronghold of the Sangh Parivar, which is trapped in a vicious cycle of bloodshed between Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists.
"If this election was fought on development then Congress will come to power. If this election was fought on anti-corruption then the Congress will come to power. If this election was fought on communalism then it is a challenge," said Madhu Goud Yakshi, a Congressman in charge of his party's campaign in Karnataka. "But let me tell you this, the silent majority even in the coast, does not like communalization. The BJP will learn that."
While the BJP sought to polarize voters over issues like legacy of Tipu Sultan and the murders of Hindu activists in the state, the Congress tried to drop charges against Muslims accused in communal violence cases.
Ultimately, the fate of this election could lie in the hands of former prime minister's H.D. Deve Gowda's and his regional party, Janata Dal (Secular), which is in alliance with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party.
Eight major exit-poll surveys have predicted that neither national party will get the 113 seats need for a clear majority, and the JD(S), with its 20 to 40 seats, will be kingmaker. Six out of these eight surveys had BJP picking up more seats than the Congress.
A potential Congress-JD(S) tie up is complicated by a history of bad blood between Gowda and Siddaramaiah, who was previously with the JD(S). Yet Siddaramaiah's remark, that he would stepp aside for a Dalit chief minister, made one day after the exit poll results, triggered speculation of the Congress was laying the groundwork for a tie up with the JD(S).
During the course of the campaign, Gandhi had referred to JD(S) as BJP's 'B team.'
Gowda hit back. "Let us be frank, he still has a long way to go to develop leadership. He does not even know to how to talk about a party that is headed by a former PM."
During the campaign, Modi appeared to be reaching out to Gowda. "Deve Gowda is among the tallest leaders of the country. You are insulting him," Modi said.
Two days later, the prime minister said, "Everyone is of the opinion that JD(S) will finish as the poor, distant third."
Meanwhile, Dalit leader and Congress parliamentarian, Mallikarjun Kharge, who won the Gurmitkal Assembly constituency eight times in the past, has indicated that he is open to being chief minister. "We are expecting a majority. If it doesn't come, we will think at the time what we will do," he said.