Patna: Some 66.8 million people will be eligible to vote from Monday in staggered assembly polls in Bihar in the biggest popularity test in the country since the BJP was routed in Delhi in February.
After weeks of no-holds-barred campaigning in which the key players hurled real and perceived abuses at one another, the Bihar clash will show if Prime Minister Narendra Modi still retains his charisma or not.
If pre-election surveys are to be believed, it will be no cakewalk for anyone including the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well as the Grand Alliance of the ruling JD-U, RJD and Congress.
Some surveys have forecast a narrow win for the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led coalition in the 243-seat assembly. Others predict a win for the four-party alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The BJP allies are Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the RLSP of union minister Upender Kushwaha and former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi's Hindustan Awami Morcha (HAM).
The five-phase elections end on November 5. The vote count is due on November 8.
The Left parties have ended their long bonhomie with the JD-U and RJD, and are on their own, but unlikely to make a big impact. There is also a Third Front led by the Samajwadi Party. And although it has put up only six candidates, the MIM of Asaduddin Owaisi is making waves.
But everyone agrees that the main battle will be between Modi and Nitish Kumar, who once sailed in the same boat but are now bitter foes.
Modi is taking no chances. He is poised to set a record by addressing around 40 rallies in the state - the most by any prime minister.
Socio-political analyst Soroor Ahmad said no prime minister before Modi had visited Bihar more than two-three times during assembly elections.
"Modi's credibility and charisma will be in doubt if the BJP suffers a defeat," warned Jai Prakash, an activist.
After leading the BJP to a sensational victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi had been on a winning spree even in states.
That was till February 2015 when the Aam Aadmi Party stunned the BJP and Modi by winning 67 of the 70 seats in the Delhi assembly. The BJP was left with just three seats.
BJP leaders admit that the need for a win in Bihar was important if only to prove that the Delhi rout was a fluke.
Backing Modi's aggressive campaign are 13 of his 26 ministers, mostly from Bihar.
And BJP's allied groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini are actively campaigning for the party.
The BJP is contesting 160 of the 243 assembly seats, its allies the LJP 40, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) 23 and the HAM 20 seats.
Bihar is equally important for the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which have come together after years of hostility along with the Congress.
The JD-U and RJD have fielded 101 candidates each, and the Congress 41.
The main electoral planks on which all parties are seeking votes include economic development, job quotas and battle against corruption.
But political activists admit that in many places, caste equations will influence the voters more than any other issue.
Of the total 66.8 million voters, 13.5 million are eligible to decide the fate of 586 candidates in the first round of polling covering 49 constituencies on Monday.
Drones will be used for the first time for surveillance, officials said.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms and the National Election Watch, as many as 130 candidates in the first round of polls face serious criminal charges including murder.
But that is no news for Bihar.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)