BANGALORE • The Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics in the seven decades since independence, will stage a last stand against Prime Minister Narendra Modi when a key southern state goes to the polls today.
Karnataka, home to 60 million people and the global information technology hub of Bangalore, is the last major bastion held by Congress under leader Rahul Gandhi.
Today's high-stakes vote comes after one of the most bitter campaigns in years, with Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi slugging it out at rival rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of people.
"It is a do-or-die battle for the Congress party," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of Jain University and coordinator of Lokniti, a political research group.
The Modi juggernaut has stormed northern India since his landslide national election win in 2014, claiming about a dozen crushing state victories.
Congress has a slim majority in the 224-member Karnataka assembly and all the signs are that today's vote will be close.
The result will be announced on Tuesday.
Defeat would see Congress effectively giving up its claim to lead any political alliance against Mr Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a general election next year. Its campaign finances would also take a battering.
Congress holds only three other states - Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram - which together account for just 2.5 per cent of India's 1.25 billion population.
"They have been systematically losing power in every state where they have ruled since 2014, and Karnataka is an opportunity to stem the trend," Dr Shastri said.
The vote is just as important for Mr Modi, whose BJP and allies now govern states accounting for about 70 per cent of the national population. He still does not have a southern foothold however.
Many politicians from non-Hindi-speaking southern states accuse Mr Modi's government of a spending bias towards its stronghold in the Hindi-speaking north.
"Karnataka is seen as a gateway for BJP's entry in the south," Dr Shastri added.
Ms Nistula Hebbar, political editor of The Hindu newspaper, said a Congress win in Karnataka could give an important "morale boost" to the opposition.
"There has been some momentum in anti-Modi politics and if the Congress wins, it will be an important milestone before national elections," Ms Hebbar said.
"For Congress, it is its biggest and most prosperous state but for the BJP, which has already peaked electorally elsewhere in the country, it is important to perform well in southern India, which has 130 national parliamentary seats for 2019."
At rallies, an acerbic Mr Modi has hit out at Mr Gandhi's Italian ancestry and accused his family of corruption.
The BJP campaign has also sought to mobilise national pride by highlighting Mr Modi's increased presence on the international stage, the growing economy and a clampdown on corruption.
The latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whose family has produced three prime ministers since 1947, has hit back by highlighting scandals under Mr Modi's government. Said Dr Shastri: "Congress has tried to de-emphasise leadership and focused on local issues and local perspectives."
Karnataka Chief Minister K. Siddaramaiah, 69, has led Congress efforts to mobilise regional sentiment against the BJP.
His government has taken controversial decisions to propose a new state flag and emphasise the use of the local Kannada language. He has also declared the Lingayat community - a powerful and electorally significant Hindu sect - a separate religion, infuriating Mr Modi's Hindu supporters.
"PM Modi is deliberately confusing Karnataka voters with his bombastic speeches on non-issues. All hot air and no substance," Mr Siddaramaiah said on Monday, responding to Mr Modi's campaign blitz.
Mr Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, BJP's charismatic but controversial state leader, has faced allegations of corruption and questions around his age, officially 75.
Important local issues, including Karnataka's creaking infrastructure, massive pollution, farm debts and water shortages have barely been looked at during the campaign.