Ahmedabad, Dec 10: After a gruelling campaigning which saw fiery exchanges between arch rivals the Congress and the BJP, the stage is set in Gujarat for tomorrow's first round of polling to 87 Assembly seats, spread across Saurashtra, Kutch and South Gujarat, amid tight security.
A 17.9 million-strong electorate will decide the fate of 669 candidates in the fray. The rest 92 Assembly constituencies will go to polls on December 16.
Stakes are high for both the Congress and the BJP as reverberations of the outcome of the fiercely fought elections to the 182-member House will be felt even at national level.
While the BJP is contesting all the 87 seats in the first phase, the Congress has fielded 82 candidates, leaving the rest five to its allies. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a new player in Gujarat, is contesting 78 seats. There are a total of 53 women contestants.
While Saurashtra accounts for 52 seats, there are six in Kutch and 29 in South Gujarat.
A total of 19,924 polling booths have been set up across these constituencies, of which 4,834 booths have been identified as senstive and 1,306 as hyper-sensitive. All the booths are equipped with electronic voting machines.
Tight security arrangements are in place to ensure smooth conduct of polls. Over 52,000 central paramilitary forces have been deployed at the booths.
About 1.20 lakh government employees have already fanned out to these regions to conduct the election.
A band of 3,397 Central Government employees working in the state, have been appointed as micro-observers. They will be posted at notified booths to monitor the poll process.
All election related materials have been despatched to the destinations and security forces have already taken up positions at every booth, he said.
''All steps have been taken to ensure that peaceful voting takes place,'' said Chief Electoral Officer Vinod Babbar.
Electioneering which started on a dull note mostly on development issues got spiced up after Ms Gandhi referred to the BJP as ''merchants of death''. A bitter exchange of words followed with the Chief Minister, raising the communal card by allegedly justifying the Sohrabuddin encounter case, though he later denied it. Both the leaders were later slapped with Election Commission notices.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did his bit of canvassing in Surat and Saurashtra to boost his party's chances at the hustings. As a last ditch effort, the party fielded Rahul Gandhi in a road show in Surat.
Among the key contestants whose fate will be locked in the Tuesday polling are Finance Minister Vajubhai Vala (Rajkot II), Water Resources Minister Narottam Patel (Chorasi), Urban Development Minister I K Jadeja (Dhrangadhra), Leader of the Opposition Arjun Modhvadiya (Porbandar), and Minister of Finance for State Saurabh Dalal from Botad (Bhavnagar).
Saurashtra is expected to spring up a few surprises as anti-Modi activity had been gaining ground for sometime. Former Chief Minister and Modi baiter Keshubhai Patel, who hails from this region, had spearheaded the rebellion in the party.
In South Gujarat, the Congress hopes to do well in the tribal belt, and the BJP in urban areas. Land rights to tribals had become a contentious issue during the campaigning with the Congress alleging that the Modi government had not disbursed land rights to them, and the Government going into a vociferous denial mode.
A part of Surti electorate was also miffed with Modi for not ''efficiently'' dealing with the floods last year. Dissidence activity could also play a role here as former BJP legislator Dhiru Gajera, is now contesting on a Congress ticket.