If you are a keen observer of politics, then the Election Commission of India has just announced a two-month extravaganza for you. Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur will go to elections simultaneously between 4 February and 8 March. The action has already begun since the announcement of the dates has triggered the Model of Conduct with immediate effect. While all these states will see crucial battles among various political formations, UP offers some of this year's hottest electoral contests.
The state, with 403 seats, will see polls in seven phases. These will be held from 11 February to 8 March, with the counting of votes to take place on 11 March.
Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is seeking to retain power in spite of the turmoil currently roiling his Samajwadi Party. The BSP, led by four-time chief minister Mayawati, is likely his closest challenger. The BJP is the most ambitious player this time around, given its sweep of the state's Lok Sabha seats in 2014. The Congress, which has been out of power in India's largest state for nearly 27 years, would be playing for mere revival of its fortunes.
The election is planned in such a manner that it traverses the state's map linearly from west to east - the first phase covers western UP, and every subsequent phase moves across the breath of the map until the last phase concludes in the eastern part of the state.
The bubbling pot of political energy that UP is, there is a plethora of issues that will frame the electoral discourse from now until the polling. To get an insight into what will likely shape the outcome of this election, here is a list of 10 hotspots in the state. These 10 places and their history essentially sum up the context that forms the backdrop against which these elections will be fought.
Dadri, Phase 1
This is where Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, was killed by a mob on the fateful night of 28 September 2015, on suspicion of having eaten beef. It caused a major rupture in the social fabric of not just UP but several other parts of India as well. Politicians of all hues descended on Akhlaq's village in the aftermath of the lynching, and the incident proved to be a spine-chilling portent of the things to come.
Kairana, Phase 1
This town in Shamli became another of UP's communal fault lines in June 2016 when the BJP alleged that an exodus of Hindus had taken place from there. The allegation caused a major uproar but, several probes later, the issue is unsettled.
Bareilly, Phase 2
Tension had gripped Bareilly after Hindus and Muslims clashed over the use of loudspeakers in a mosque in August 2016. Quick police action prevented the situation from turning grim, but the incident showed the potential of the riot-hit area to quickly burst into flames.
Mainpuri, Phase 3
The home turf of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has long been a safe seat for the party. The entire region, in fact, is an SP stronghold. However, the feud in the party's first family is said to have pitted supporters of Mulayam and his son Akhilesh against each other. It will be interesting to watch whether this infighting will hand Mainpuri to another party?
Lucknow, Phase 3
The state capital, with accounts for five assembly constituencies, has been a BJP bastion for sometime now. It was once represented in the parliament by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Jhansi, Phase 4
Jhansi is the main city of the poverty-stricken Bundelkhand region, which straddles UP and Madhya Pradesh. The area was hit especially hard by the drought of 2015-16, and demonetisation has further dented the economy. It hit the headlines again in 2016 when refugees from the region came to Delhi in large numbers and spent a long time under flyovers, somehow keeping themselves alive.
Ayodhya, Phase 5
The land of the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir dispute, which has shaped nearly all elections here since the mosque was demolished in December 1992. With the BJP talking up the temple issue in recent months and the Supreme Court banning canvassing for votes in the religion, Ayodhya will again be a hot dot on the elections radar.
Amethi, Phase 5
The home-turf of Congress president Sonia Gandhi was swept by the SP in last assembly polls. It is one of the bones of contention that are preventing an alliance between the two parties this time around. If that alliance happens, it will be a major game-changer.
Mau, Phase 6
Mau is home to one of Uttar Pradesh's most dreaded gangsters - Mukhtar Ansari. Although Ansari is behind bars, he had caused a major rift between Mulayam and Akhilesh last year. Yadav senior wanted Ansari to join hands with SP while the chief minister was against the idea. Eventually, Ansari's political outfit Quomi Ekta Dal merged into the SP.
Varanasi, Phase 7
The ancient city is the BJP's Amethi, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi representing it in the Lok Sabha. After 2014, any fight here automatically acquires a national character.