As many as 111 Assembly constituencies of Eastern Uttar Pradesh will be voting in the sixth and seventh phases of polling on 3 March and 7 March.
This includes Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's seat Gorakhpur Sadar and the five Assembly segments in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha seat Varanasi.
So far, the Samajwadi Party-led coalition has given the BJP-led NDA a run for its money, chipping away at its vote share and seat share in each of the five phases but with varying degrees of success.
The Quint had written in November that the BJP may face more difficulty in West UP, Rohilkhand, and Poorvanchal and may do better in Awadh, Bundelkhand, and other parts of central UP.
So far the elections seem to have broadly gone in this direction.
Without getting into any detailed predictions, it does seem that Akhilesh Yadav's alliance has inflicted maximum damage in the first, second, and fifth phases with the BJP managing to restrict losses in phases three and four.
So the question is, can the SP continue its momentum in phases 6 and 7 or will the BJP hold its ground?
And will the SP's gains be enough to bring BJP below the halfway mark of 200 from its massive tally of 325 in 2017?
It does seem that the BJP is slightly more vulnerable in phases 6 and 7. Here are six key aspects in these two phases of polling.
1. In East UP, BJP's Margins are Smaller
On an average, the BJP's leads from 2017 in the 111 seats voting in phases 6 and 7 were lower than the state-level figure.
At the state level, the NDA won 55 percent of UP's 403 seats with vote margins of over 10 percentage points.
However, in the 19 districts of Poorvanchal voting in the last two phases, the NDA won 44 percent seats with a margin of over 10 percentage points.
On the other hand, 31 percent seats in these districts were won by the BJP by margins of under 10 percentage points, as opposed to 26 percent at the state level.
This means that the BJP could lose a large number of seats in this region, with just a small swing against it. When margins are narrow, even small swings, fluctuations in turnout, local rebellions, resentment at the candidate level can all lead to a change in result.
The Opposition, too, is better placed in these 19 districts compared to the state level. In 2017, the NDA had lost 19 percent of all the seats in UP but in these districts, it lost 24 percent of all the seats.
However, there are differences within these 19 districts.
It seems that BJP is still at an advantage in districts like Maharajganj, Varanasi, Mirzapur and to some extent Sonbhadra, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar and Siddharthnagar.
On the other hand, the SP-led coalition could have a lead in Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh, Sant Kabir Nagar, Ghazipur, Jaunpur, Mau and Bhadohi.
2. Defections and Changing Alliances
What has also added to the BJP's vulnerability is the desertion of leaders representing key caste groups in this region. Swami Prasad Maurya, an import from the BSP who helped BJP increase its support among the Maurya-Kushwaha-Shakya community, is now with the SP.
Then BJP's ally from the 2017 elections Om Prakash Rajbhar's Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, is also now part of the SP-led alliance. Rajbhar has been one of the strongest voices of non-Yadav OBC opposition to the BJP.
Dara Singh Chauhan, another OBC face from the Nonia caste who joined the BJP from the BSP before the 2017 elections, is now with the SP and contesting from Ghosi in Mau district.
However, the NISHAD party that had contested separately in 2017 and won the Gyanpur seat, is now with the BJP. The BJP also recruited leaders like BSP MLA Bandana Singh from Sagri in Azamgarh and Congress' Kurmi leader RPN Singh from Kushinagar district.
The SP isn't gaining just from OBCs from the NDA camp.
It has won key leaders from the BSP as well. A good example of this is Ambedkar Nagar that promises to be one of the most beneficial districts for the SP in Purvanchal.
Last time, the BSP had won 3 out of 5 seats here. A number of key BSP leaders from the district have joined the SP.
This includes Akbarpur MLA and erstwhile OBC faces of the BSP Ram Achal Rajbhar and Lalji Verma, MLA from Katehari. Also joining the SP from BSP is a strong Dalit leader from the district Tribhuwan Dutt, who is contesting from the Alapur seat.
Then Rakesh Pandey, father of BSP MP from Ambedkar Nagar Ritesh Pandey, has also joined SP and is contesting from the Jalalpur seat.
In Gorakhpur district, Vinay Shankar Tiwari, son of strongman Hari Shankar Tiwari has shifted from BSP to SP and is contesting from the family pocket borough of Chillupar.
The influential Ansari family of Mau has also shifted from BSP to SP.
In Didarganj's seat of Azamgarh district, Kamalkant Rajbhar, the son of the late BSP MLA Sukhdev Rajbhar, is now contesting on an SP ticket.
BSP MLA from Mungra Badshahpur Sushma Patel is also now in the SP and is contesting from the Mariyahu seat in the same Jaunpur district.
3. Can Rajbhar & Maurya Ensure a Shift of Non-Yadav OBCs Towards SP?
As mentioned earlier, many of the leaders joining the SP are helping it expand its support beyond its traditional Muslim-Yadav base.
Akhilesh Yadav's social engineering will really be tested in the upcoming phase. Will the presence of SBSP lead to a large scale shift of Rajbhars to the SP-led alliance? Can Swami Prasad Maurya deliver Kushwaha votes for the alliance?
Can Rajbhar, Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan, and Krishna Patel deliver a shift in their respective communities to the same degree as Jayant Chaudhary's Rashtriya Lok Dal seems to have done among Jats of West UP?
It won't be easy. The RLD gained a great deal due to the anti-BJP atmosphere created by the farmers' movement against Narendra Modi government's farm laws as well as the prevailing anger due to payment for sugarcane farmers.
These conditions don't exist for the non-Yadav OBCs of East UP, though there is a certain general rural despondency due to loss of livelihood, rising prices and lack of jobs.
Inter-caste relations at the local level are also complicated. In some areas, an agrarian OBC caste like Rajbhars are often at conflict with Yadavs, also a largely agrarian OBC caste, rather than with Upper Castes.
So in such circumstances, will Rajbhar votes shift to the alliance?
A seat to watch out for in this context is Phoolpur Pawai where SP has fielded controversial Yadav leader Ramakant Yadav. He is up against a Rajbhar candidate from the BJP and Muslim candidates from the BSP and Congress.
Then in the Jangipur seat of Ghazipur district, sitting SP MLA Virendra Yadav is up against a Kushwaha candidate from the BJP and a Rajbhar candidate from Congress.
It remains to be seen if the SP's new coalition works in these seats. Overall, ground reports suggest that the non-Yadav OBC shift to the SP has been at best partial and effective in pockets rather than a wider phenomenon.
4. Exodus from BSP
As many as 11 out of BSP's 19 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections came from the areas voting in phases 6 and 7. Therefore this is a make or break phase for the party.
However, unfortunately for the BSP, 9 out of 11 MLAs have either themselves moved away from the party or been expalled or their family members have shifted to other parties.
We've already spoken about Lalji Verma, Ram Achal Rajbhar, Rakesh Pandey, Tribhuwan Dutt, Mukhtar Ansari, Vinay Shankar Tiwari, Sushma Patel, Bandana Singh, and Kamalkant Rajbhar above.
In addition, there is Mubarakpur MLA Shah Alam alias Guddu Jamali, who also fell out with the BSP.
5. Make or Break for AIMIM & Peace Party
For a while it seemed that Guddu Jamali would join the SP but that didn't work out. He's now contesting on the ticket of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and is said to be one of the party's best prospects in the entire election.
Another key prospect for the party is its candidate in Utraula Dr Abdul Mannan. Dr Mannan is a highly respected doctor in Balrampur district and is known to cater to poorer patients at nominal charges.
He joined the AIMIM from the Peace Party, which is also supporting his candidature from Utraula. Peace Party chief Dr Ayub is also fighting from Khalilabad in Sant Kabir Nagar district.
He had won this seat in 2012.
However, both the AIMIM and Peace Party are facing pressure due to the increasing bipolarity of the election, especially the sense among a sizable section of Muslim voters to tactically support the SP-led alliance at the state level.
For many Muslims, this tactical decision comes from lived experience of day-to-day harassment in the past five years, therefore they may end up prioritising defeating the BJP over other factors.
6. Congress' Prospects and Its Mission in Varanasi
The Congress has a few candidates with decent prospects in phases 6 and 7, most importantly its state unit chief Ajay Kumar Lallu, the sitting MLA from Tamkuhi Raj in Kushinagar district.
A few other important candidates include Akhilesh Pratap Singh in Rudrapur, Nadeem Javed in Jaunpur, Virendra Chaudhary in Pharenda and Syed Mirzauddin Kichaudhi in Tanda.
However, the most interesting campaign for the Congress seems to be happening in Varanasi district. The party seems to be wanting to make a dent in the district in which PM Narendra Modi's seat falls.
The party's face in the elections, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is expected to campaign extensively in the district this week.
A great deal of the party's hopes in the district are hinging on two of its key Upper Caste faces, former Varanasi MP Rajesh Mishra who is contesting from Varanasi Cantonment and Ajai Rai from Pindra.
The party is trying hard to win back Upper Caste, Dalit, and Kurmi support and emerge as the main Opposition to the BJP in the district.
In this task, it is being helped by the fact that a section of Upper Caste voters who may feel reluctant to support the SP or BSP, may be open to voting for the Congress.
The Big Picture
The NDA held 84 out of the 111 seats voting in phases 6 and 7, the SP had 13, BSP 11. Given its vulnerability due to lower margins and changing alliances, the NDA may consider itself lucky if it manages to retain 65 seats in these two phases combined.
The SP-led alliance on the other hand would want to maximise its gains in these phases, not just at the expense of the BJP but also the BSP.
The SP-led alliance would hope to gain over 40 seats and somehow come close to winning half the seats in these two phases.
Whether it happens or not is another matter and would greatly depend on the success of Akhilesh Yadav's attempted new social coalition.