The election in Karnataka has evidently reached a fevered pitch in Bidar, the northern-most city in Karnataka. Large banners ask people to exercise their right to vote as the state goes to the polls on May 12, even as seemingly informed voters indulge in debates and discussions about the candidates.
"There is a lot at stake, more for the Congress than the BJP, as they have to prove that they still enjoy the public's support," says Pradeep, a native of Gumpa village and an assistant professor in a nearby college, as we sit in a tiffin centre on the outskirts of Bidar.
Others soon join the discussion with their plates and voice nuanced opinions on the upcoming election.
"We are more concerned about the policy than the politics. Parties are always trying to drag each other into controversies, when we just want good infrastructure and jobs at the end of the day," says Gowda, a student.
"We won't vote for the BJP, but we are tired of voting for the Congress. They need to give us better reasons," another local pipes in.
The awareness of the electorate is evident as one travels through the villages and towns of Bidar district. People are more concerned about candidates and agendas than they are with parties and their petty politics.
There are six seats in Bidar district; Bidar, Bidar South, Bhalki, Humnabad, Aurad and Basavakalyan.
The Congress presently holds four out of the six seats, with the remaining two held by the BJP and the JD(S).
By attempting to reclaim as many seats as it can in the district, the Congress wants to send home the message that there is no strong anti-incumbency wave against the present Karnataka government. This is evident as the party has even ensured that party President Rahul Gandhi has visited the headquarters of each of the six constituencies.
Large vans and vehicles mounted with loudspeakers, displaying photos of Congress leaders, were also seen traversing through these towns.
There is also nepotism at play, as the four powerful families, Nagamarapalli, Patil, Khandre and Khenny, in the district working in different parties, are all said to be indirectly related.
In Bidar city, many seem satisfied with sitting MLA Rahim Khan, who has been fielded again on a Congress ticket.
There is a large number of minority votes in the city, which the Congress is banking on to ensure their victory. However, there have been allegations that two of his subordinates were caught on camera distributing money for votes.
The BJP has fielded Suryakanth Nagamarapalli, son of late BJP MLA Gurupadappa Nagamarapalli, who once held the seat after defeating Rahim Khan.
Suryakanth is also considered close to former Karnataka CM Yeddyurappa and is reported to have got the ticket on the latter's behest.
However, he isn't without controversy either, as he was arrested in 2006 by the Cubbon Park Police in Bengaluru after he opened fire in a pub.
The JD(S) has decided to back BSP candidate M Muniyappa.
The Bidar South seat is perhaps one of the most closely watched constituencies, as it has former minister Bandeppa Kashempur from the JD(S) face-off against controversial businessman-politician Ashok Khenny.
BJP District President Shailendra Beldale is also in the race. While the Congress and BJP have fielded candidates from the Lingayat community, the JD(S) has fielded a local strongman who belongs to the Kuruba community.
With a strong anti-incumbency wave against Ashok Khenny, the JD(S) is also boosted by the support offered by BSP chief Mayawati and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi to the party.
In Bhalki, the Congress has fielded Minister for Municipal Administration Eshwar Khandre, while the JDS has nominated his relative Prakash Khandre, who jumped parties after serving two terms as an MLA from the BJP.
Prakash staged a revolt after he was denied a ticket by the BJP, who fielded DK Siddarama, who had lost in 2013 to a Karnataka Janata Party candidate.
Congress leaders told TNM that Khandre, a two-time MLA who hails from a powerful family in the region, has been working on the ground to ensure that he scores a hattrick.
In Humnabad, the BJP has fielded ex-MLA Subhash Kallur, while the Congress has nominated sitting legislator Rajashekar B Patil, who was earlier upset at being denied a Cabinet berth, with his followers even staging a bandh in his hometown.
They hope that Patil’s influence in the town and surrounding villages helps them retain the seat.
The JD(S) has fielded Naseemuddin Patel, who finished second behind Patil during the 2013 elections.
Aurad, a seat reserved for the SC community, is the northern-most constituency in Karnataka, far away from the state's capital of Bengaluru.
The BJP has fielded sitting legislator Prabhu Chouhan, who has been in power for two consecutive terms, while the JD(S) has fielded former KJP candidate Dhanaji Jadav, who jumped parties.
The Congress has fielded Vijay Kumar, a relatively new face.
The constituency has a large population of Maratha voters, as it is surrounded by Maharashtra on three sides, and analysts feel that the denial of ticket to a Maratha may hurt the BJP's chances here.
The hometown of Kannada philosopher Basavanna is another seat where the stakes are high, as it has turned into a triangular fight between the three main parties in the state.
Traditionally a JD(S) stronghold, the Lingayat issue is the main topic of discussion here, and the Congress has fielded senior leader B Narayan Rao.
The JD(S) has fielded senior leader PGR Sindhia, a Marathi, while sitting MLA Mallikarjuna Khuba, who defected from the party, was given the ticket to contest from the BJP.
This also led to in-fighting within the BJP, as it angered party senior leader Basavaraj Patil Attur, who had hoped that his son would get the ticket.
Speaking to TNM, Narayan Rao, who is also the Secretary of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), said that the anti-incumbency against the JD(S) MLA and the internal dispute in the BJP would greatly aid his party.
"All communities are with us. We have thousands of karyakartas covering the grass-roots level, speaking to people and asking them to vote. People will not vote for those hopping parties and fighting within their own party," he said.
Stating that Lingayats were with the party after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's decision to grant minority religion status, he said that the Congress' vote bank was united.
"I myself have got the ticket after years of working on the ground. I prefer staying here rather than in Bengaluru or New Delhi. People here know me, and the party trusted that I'm a strong candidate, which is why we are sure of winning the seat," he added.
By fielding strong candidates, coupled with aggressive grass-roots level campaigning, the Congress hopes to retain the Karnataka-Hyderabad region, which has historically voted for them, and dispel any claims of anti-incumbency.