With voting in Punjab and Goa over, the spotlight is now on western Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in the first phase on 11 February. Voting for the second phase will take place on 15 February.
At stake are 140 seats - 73 constituencies spread over 15 districts in the first phase, and 67 spread over 10 districts in the second phase - in what is known as the Muslim and Jat belt of the state.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh's son Pankaj, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Sangeet Som, Kairana MP Hukum Singh's daughter Mriganka Singh, UP minister Azam Khan and his son Abdullah Azam Khan and Congress legislature party leader Pradeep Mathur are some of the key contestants in these two rounds.
Facts and numbers
Shamli and Muzaffarnagar, where communal riots in 2013 led to a divide between Jats and Muslims, are among the districts which go to the polls on 11 February. Mohammad Akhlaq's lynching in Dadri and the exodus of Hindus from Kairana have kept the communal fire smouldering in the region, making it hyper-sensitive.
The BJP's star campaigners for the region are Yogi Adityanath and Sanjeev Baliyan, known Muslim baiters. Suresh Rana, the BJP MLA from Thana Bhawan and state vice-president, recently warned Muslim voters that if he wins again, curfew will be imposed in Kairana, Deoband and Moradabad.
Other districts in phase one include Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddh Nagar, Hapur, Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Mathura, Hathras, Agra, Firozabad, Etah and Kasganj.
Meanwhile, pver 2.28 crore voters in Saharanpur, Bijnor, Moradabad, Sambhal, Rampur, Bareilly, Amroha, Pilibhit, Kheri, Shahjehanpur and Budaun districts will exercise their franchise in the second phase on 15 February.
Rampur has the biggest percentage of Muslims of any district in the state - 49.14% - followed by Moradabad/Sambhal 45.54% and Bijnor 41.71%. Amroha, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Bareilly and Meerut have a Muslim population above 30%.
The Muslim factor
Given their numbers, Muslims will play a decisive role in at least half of these 140 seats. In fact, Muslims account for over 18% of the state's population.
That's what cannot be ignored in these Assembly elections, and that is why political parties, with the exception of the BJP, have gone all out to woo them.
Like in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the BJP has scrupulously avoided fielding any Muslim candidate in any of the 403 constituencies, as it once again relies heavily on its politics of polarisation.
The number of Muslim legislators in the state has consistently increased from 31 in 1993 to 68 in 2012, with a majority of them coming from this western part of the state. The Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress are far more welcoming, even as they continue to play on the community's fear of the BJP.
Of these 68 Muslim MLAs, the SP has the maximum representation with 43 MLAs in the present Assembly. The BSP, with 15, is a distant second, while the Congress has four Muslim MLAs.
Things may not go the SP's way this time, as Muslims blame the party for not acting against the 2013 rioters and those rendered homeless as a consequence of the religious frenzy. In fact, Mulayam Singh Yadav had said the riot victims were living in refugee camps at the behest of a political party.
As a double whammy, the Jat-led Bharatiya Kisan Union was angry with Akhilesh government over withdrawal of cases against Muslim leaders who incited the trouble-makers.
What has further queered the pitch for the ruling party is the infighting in the Yadav family and Mulayam's ambivalence, whether pretended or real, over which side he is on.
While Muslims still vouch for Mulayam, his son Akhilesh is yet untested. The government's decision to withdraw cases against the riot accused was taken on Mulayam's orders, as Akhilesh was not in full control then as he is now.
The Congress may be a marginal beneficiary of its alliance with the SP, as Muslims would vote for any candidate (other than that of the BJP) who stands a chance to win, leading to a possible three-way split of their votes.
Mayawati, who is striving to make a comeback, has fielded 97 Muslims, 12 more than she nominated in 2012, and 113 upper castes, in keeping with her party's credo of giving weightage to all sections of the society. These elections will be a test of Mayawati's Muslim-Dalit combination.
Rebels may upset BJP's applecart
For the BJP, which is banking on Hindu majority support, the bickering over tickets could spoil its chances. Many of its rebel candidates have been fielded by the Rashtriya Lok Dal. That ought to make it difficult for the party to run away with Jat votes.
Some 35 Khap panchayats had even staged a protest against the BJP and raised the issue of reservation for Jats.
The community declared that it would vote to defeat the BJP.
If this stand was not a gimmick, then the saffron party may find it difficult to repeat its 2014 clean sweep.