New Delhi: The Election Commission (EC) on Wednesday set the stage for the electoral showdown in Gujarat between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, its principal challenger.

According to the poll schedule for the 182-member assembly, Gujarat elections will take place in two phases—on 9 and 14 December. The first phase of election will see polling in 89 seats while the second phase will be for 93 assembly constituencies.

While the districts including Kachchh, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Surat will go to poll in the first phase, the districts of Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar,Vadodara will go to poll in the second phase.

The Gujarat election results will be declared on 18 December along with Himachal Pradesh.

The face off is a key battle for the Congress and the BJP. While the Congress is the incumbent in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP is aspiring for a record fifth term in office. The poll has acquired an extra edge as the Congress will be led by Rahul Gandhi who is poised to takeover the party leadership and for the BJP by Prime Minister Narendra Modi—the former three-term chief minister of Gujarat.

In the 2012 Gujarat elections, the ruling BJP had won 115 seats with 47.8% vote share while the Congress, had won 61 seats with 38.9% vote share in the 182 member state assembly.

The ruling BJP has set a target of Mission 150-plus in Gujarat.

Modi has already organized at least five road shows and public meetings in the state, while Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has also held a series of public meetings in the state. Both sides have staked claim to the promise of development, thereby making it a central issue in the upcoming poll.

Addressing a press conference A.K. Joti, chief election commissioner (CEC), said voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPATs) will be used in the Gujarat elections.

“After the February-March poll in Goa which saw the use of 100% VVPATs in all 40 constituencies, same will be done for Gujarat. All 50,128 polling stations will have VVPATs. Moreover, slips of one randomly chosen polling station will be counted to generate voter trust in the system," he said.

The CEC also responded to charges levelled by a section of the opposition, including the Congress, over the delay in announcing the poll dates.

“Whenever EC takes decision to finalize dates many factors need to be considered. The issue here was unprecedented rainfall in July and August. The chief secretary of Gujarat had written to us that 7 districts of Gujarat were severely affected and 229 people had died in the floods. This only shows magnitude of the situation. We were requested to make schedule in a way that relief work doesn’t get affected," Joti added.

Interestingly, the state has witnessed social unrest with protests by sections of the dominant Patel community, Dalits and other backward classes (OBCs). Normally the BJP has retained the majority share of votes of all these social groups.

The Gujarat elections is likely to figure in discussions during the winter session of Parliament, which is expected to start in November and continue till December.

Analysts say that for the first time in two decades Gujarat is seeing a resurgent opposition.

“Congress did not have much of a political will to fight after Narendra Modi took over as the chief minister of Gujarat. However, since Modi has moved to the Centre, Congress has got its first fighting chance. The party is also attempting a new caste alliance of the Patidhars, Kshatriyas and Scheduled Castes. There is discontent in the state but it is to been seen whether the Congress can capitalize on it,"said Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a sessions court in Visnagar, Mehsana, issued a non-bailable warrant against PAAS leader Hardik Patel and Sardar Patel Group leader Lalji Patel after they failed to respond to the summons in the case of violence during the Patidar agitation in 2015.

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