The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are about 70 percent done, with voters in 292 out of 403 constituencies having voted already. There are still two phases remaining, spanning 111 seats in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
By most accounts the election has been far closer than the 2017 Assembly elections or the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, all of which were dominated by the BJP.
So, at this stage, what can we safely say about which way the Uttar Pradesh elections are swinging?
There are broadly six aspects we can be certain about.
1. SP is Giving BJP a Run for its Money
The Samajwadi Party and its allies such as the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Mahan Dal, Pragatisheel Samaj Party (Lohia) and Janvadi Party (Socialist) have given a spirited fight to the BJP's might.
The BJP-led NDA went into the elections with a huge lead – it had won 325 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections with a sizable vote share of 41 percent, the highest for any party or alliance in UP for over two decades.
But in this election, the SP led by Akhilesh Yadav has projected itself as the main opposition and captured much of the anti-BJP space in the state.
It has gained a great deal at the expense of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, especially among Muslim voters. Then the farmers' protest also helped it win over a sizable chunk of Jat votes from the BJP.
Akhilesh Yadav has been pursuing a clear narrative focused on the economic woes of the public – unemployed youth, farmers, small scale industries and government employees.
He has backed this up by trying to go beyond his party's Yadav and Muslim base by trying to woo non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits, besides the RLD's Jat base.
It remains to be seen the extent to which the SP succeeds in this strategy.
2. Phases 1 & 2 Were Bad for the BJP
The SP-led alliance seems to have inflicted significant losses on the BJP in the first and second phases. While the losses in the first phase were mainly due the shift of Jat votes following the farmer protest, the second phase losses were due to the consolidation of Muslim votes behind the SP-led alliance.
Reports suggest that other communities like Gujjars and Sainis also may have shifted from the BJP to the SP-led alliance on a seat-by-seat basis, based on candidates.
Conservative estimates suggest a loss of 30 seats for the BJP in these two phases combined while some observers say it could be much more.
BJP may still have dominated districts like Gautam Buddh Nagar, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr, Agra, Aligarh and Kasganj, while losing ground in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat, Meerut, Hapur, Saharanpur and much of Rohilkhand.
A poor performance in these two phases does also indicate that there wasn't much communal polarisation in the election, which seems to have worked in favour of the SP.
3. BJP May Have Recovered Some Ground in Phases 3 & 4
Except for the Yadav dominated districts such as Mainpuri, Etawah and Kannauj, the BJP was at a demographic advantage in the areas that voted in phases 3 and 4 with a comparatively higher Upper Caste population and lower Yadav, Jatav and Muslim population.
However, even in these areas, the SP-led alliance may have chipped into the BJP's vote bank and the seat tally it had won last time.
In many of these areas, the stray cattle menace contributed to some rural unrest against the BJP.
Some clever ticket selection is also said to have brought the SP into contention in some of the seats in Lucknow city such as Lucknow West, Lucknow Central and Bakshi Ka Talab as well. On the other hand, in Kanpur a split in anti-BJP votes between SP and Congress in seats like Kanpur Cantonment, Sishamau and Arya Nagar may bring some benefit to the BJP.
In Bundelkhand, the BJP seems to be facing losses in terms of vote share but due to its massive lead last time, the loss in terms of seats might be minimal.
Overall, however, while the BJP may enjoy a sizable lead over the SP in these three phases, it may still be at a significant loss compared to 2017.
It seems that Phase 5 too may have seen higher losses for BJP due to its smaller margins in 2017 compared to the areas in phases 3 and 4 as well as a few districts with a high upper caste and Lodh population in phase 1.
4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is Still Popular, Anti-BJP Sentiment Highest at the MLA Level
Irrespective of the fall in support for the BJP, the anger isn't directed at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, ground reports suggest that the PM's popularity remains reasonably robust.
Many voters who may have suffered during the COVID-19 lockdown or upset due to lack of jobs, don't seem to be blaming the PM for it.
In an indirect way, it is possible that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine may also end up working to the BJP's advantage to a limited extent. This is because the international sphere is perceived as one of the main successes of PM Modi.
It is common to hear voters claim that they feel he has improved India's name on the world stage. Whether it is true or not is besides the point, but this is a very common sentiment in UP.
The anger seems to be highest at the level of the MLA. Even in a seat like Ayodhya, where the BJP is expected to do well due to the Ram Mandir's ongoing construction, there is very high resentment against the MLA.
What has made matters worse for the BJP is that the exit of Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and a number of MLAs, especially from an OBC background, put paid to the party's plans of slashing the tickets of a large number of sitting MLAs.
This has made the BJP vulnerable to losing seats due to resentment against the local MLA.
In between the PM's popularity and unpopularity of MLAs is chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
There is no doubt about the sizeable support for Adityanath. There's a perception among a section of voters that the law and order situation has improved under Adityanath but data suggests that the 'improvement' may not be as clear as the BJP claims.
But Adityanath's popularity is nowhere near that of the PM and there is a sizeable chunk of voters who openly voice their dissatisfaction against him.
5. BSP Has Lost Some Support But Maybe Not As Much as Many Anticipated
Till around early January, it appeared as if the BSP wasn't campaigning to its fullest capacity and many had written off the party. This also helped SP present itself as the main Opposition in the state.
However, the BSP picked up rapidly and may have done enough to retain its core vote base.
The BJP seems to be counting on the BSP doing well as was clear in Union Home Minister Amit Shah's recent comment that the party has a presence and that Muslims are also voting for it.
While it does seem that the BSP has done better than what many felt a few months ago, it is not clear whether its revival is indeed among Muslim voters as the BJP is hoping.
Mostly, it does seem that the BSP's prospects are dependent on the party's core Jatav base in addition to any votes that candidates bring on their own. It is not clear if this would translate into many seats.
6. Congress' Prospects Mostly Dependent on Candidates
The Congress' campaign did generate a significant degree of buzz - especially its 'Ladki Hun Lad Sakti Hun' slogan accompanied by allotment of around 40 percent tickets to women.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra seems to have worked hard during the campaign and attracted crowds.
In terms of seats, however, the party may largely be dependent on individual candidates' own support. Some of its strong candidates include Aradhana 'Mona' Misra in Rampur Khas, Ajay Kapur in Kidwai Nagar, Ajay Kumar Lallu in Tamkuhi Raj, Sushil Pasi in Bachhrawan, Vijay Pasi in Jagdishpur to name a few.
There's another aspect which may not manifest in this election but is important from the point of view of the Congress' future prospects - for many Upper Caste voters in big cities, the Congress is the preferred alternative to the BJP and not the SP.
This may also reflect the limitations of the SP's growth.
These six aspects are reasonably certain. The final outcome, however, will be based on at least four X-factors.
1. BJP's Advantage vs Extent of SP's Rise: In 2017, the NDA won 222 seats by margins of over 10 percentage points. Out of these 93 were won by margins of over 20 points and 129 by margins between 10-20 percentage points. 103 seats were won by margins of under 10 percentage points.
Not all 103 has the SP as the runner-up but even if the party flips all the 103 seats in addition to retaining all of its own seats, it would still be well short of a majority. Has the SP done enough to turn at least half the seats the BJP won by 10-20 percentage points?
Unless the SP achieves this, the likely result would be a narrow majority for the BJP.
2. SP's Social Coalition: We can say with reasonable degree of certainty that the SP-RLD alliance has succeeded in winning over a sizable chunk of Jat votes from the BJP. This is benefitting the alliance in the entire sugarcane belt.
However, has the SP-led alliance succeeded in winning over any other major voting block from the BJP at such a substantial scale? This is not certain.
What does seem to be the case is the shift of Kurmis, Mauryas, Sainis, Gujjars and other OBC caste groups in certain pockets based on candidate selection or local factors.
Then there might be a shift away from BJP among Pasi Dalit voters in parts of Awadh and possibly East UP. The SP seems to be main but not sole beneficiary of this. In some seats like Bachhrawan, Jagdishpur and Bakshi Ka Talab the Congress also seems to be gaining.
But despite the SP's major pitch towards wooing non-Yadav OBCs, it doesn't seem to have dented the BJP in this section as much as it may have among Jats of the sugarcane belt.
3.The BSP Story: Decline or Resilience? It does seem that the BSP may be losing some of its support among Muslims. This may be due to two reasons: first, there seems to be a sense among Muslims, especially after the Bengal elections, that the community should back the main anti-BJP party at the state level and not just the seat level.
Second, is the perception that the BSP has cooperated with the BJP at the national level on issues like Triple Talaq and a possible post-poll alliance between the two parties can't be ruled out.
But beyond the loss of some Muslim support, how is the BSP's vote base changing? Is it gaining ground among non-Jatav Dalits, especially after the Hathras gangrape? Has it been able to win back some of the Upper Caste support that it had lost between in the past few years?
Conversely, if the BSP is losing support beyond Muslims, who are these voters shifting to? Who would these voters consider a bigger enemy – the BJP or the SP?
4. Impact of Economic Issues: One such issue is the SP's announcement that it would restore the old pension scheme. This seems to have gone down well among government servants. But this section isn't concentrated in limited areas, rather they are spread across the state. So, will it have a sizable impact on the electoral outcome?
The second such issue is unemployment and the increasing flak that the BJP is facing on this issue, especially after the police violence against job aspirants in Allahabad.
Here again, the youth affected are from across UP and therefore not in a position to affect the outcome in a particular area. Has this issue created a sentiment against BJP across UP? Or will the party be able to contain the losses due to PM Modi and CM Yogi's appeal.