The bugle has been sounded and the battleground states are ready. The upcoming Assembly elections promise to provide a mouth-watering contest between the country's most powerful political parties.
From the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh to the sun and sand of Goa, from the land of the Golden Temple to the north-eastern state that was once known as the "jewel of India", as well as one that is known as the abode of gods - five states will go to the polls in February.
Here's a look at the spectrum of issues that are likely to dominate the political discourse in the weeks and days ahead:
Demonetisation: The battle for Uttar Pradesh is going to be an acid test for the BJP and the Prime Minister's demonetisation drive. The decision to discontinue old 500 and 1,000 rupee notes resulted in complete chaos on the ground, with people forced to queue up outside banks and ATMs for days on end. While the policy was appreciated by many... the implementation and resulting cash crunch has left a bitter aftertaste. The upcoming elections will be seen as a referendum on the noteban.
Samajwadi Party split: After a very public spat, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav have decided to bury their differences and come together, but the drama has left a dent. Political pundits claim the chaos will cost the SP and its core votebank may drift away in search of a more stable option.
|The "pari-war" has helped Akhilesh Yadav carve out a clean image for himself.|
However, the "pari-war" has helped Akhilesh carve out a clean image for himself - that of a young leader who is trying to rid his party of corrupt leaders. But it is unlikely to work in favour of either of the two. While parting ways with the old guard might help the young CM win a clean image, the party's core votebank is likely to drift away to a more stable option. The BSP and the BJP are both likely to benefit in the event of a split.
SC order against caste appeasement: Ahead of the Assembly polls in five states, the Supreme Court has ruled that a candidate's election will be declared null and void if an appeal is made to vote for the candidate based on religion, race, caste, community or language.
The order is likely to play a crucial role on ground politics - especially in UP. The law also applies to agents of the candidate including spiritual and religious gurus mobilising their followers.
Minority votes: Muslims comprise 19 per cent of Uttar Pradesh's population and form a crucial votebank - strong enough to swing the verdict in favour of any political party or alliance. The community is frequently courted by regional parties like the SP and the BSP - for whom they form a vital support base. The Muslim vote, if not scattered, can prove to be the game-changer in UP.
Dalit votebank: Dalits constitute about 20.5 per cent of the total population in this state where caste calculations make and break political fortunes. They form a crucial votebank too, especially for the BSP which managed to storm to power thanks to their support and catapulted Mayawati to the CM's chair four times. The RSS too is actively wooing the community by launching various outreach programmes to garner support for the BJP.
Anti-incumbency: Shaking off anti-incumbency will be close to impossible for the BJP-Akali government in Punjab, which over the last decade has come to be associated with the sand mafia, drug mafia, liquor mafia, cable mafia, transport mafia and all other sorts of corrupt practices. The first signs of anti-incumbency were seen in the 2014 general elections where AAP managed to bag four of 13 seats in its debut and BJP strongman Arun Jaitley suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of veteran Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh.
Drug and alcohol addiction: Up to 16 per cent of Punjab's population is addicted to hard drugs, according to a departmental survey conducted by the state government. As much as 90 per cent of total addicts are hooked to heroin. Reports also say heroin is a major source of political funding in the state - which is why the problem of drug addiction has been brushed under the carpet for almost a decade.
Punjab is also notorious for its liquor mafia and there has been an unprecedented rise in murders related to illicit alcohol trade under the BJP-Akali government. Drug and alcohol addiction have emerged as top poll issues in the run-up to the elections.
Farmer suicides: After Maharashtra, Punjab has reported the highest number of farmer suicides in the country in the last two years. Despite new pesticides being introduced in the market, pest attacks have ruined consecutive crops of cotton in the state - causing an estimated loss of about Rs 4,200 crore annually. Distressed and debt-ridden, farmers in the state are being pushed to commit suicide in the absence of sufficient aide from the state.
|Pest attacks have ruined consecutive crops in the state and farmers are in distress.|
Gang wars: Gangsters are ruling the roost in Punjab with more than 57 gangs and their splinter groups openly operating in the state without any fear of the law. Reports also claim that jails, where leaders of most gangs are lodged, have become safe havens for their operations.
The fact that 37 gangsters have managed to escape from prison between January 2015 and March 2016 has put a huge question mark on the ability of the state machinery to keep a check on the activities of these gangs and maintain law and order.
The AAP twist: The Aam Aadmi Party has emerged as a big challenger in Punjab that till now had seen a two-way contest between the Akali Dal and the Congress. Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia's statement urging the people of Punjab to vote as if Arvind Kejriwal would be the chief minister of the state, has come as a shock to the traditional rivals who are now trying to give a Punjabi versus non-Punjabi hue to the battle. Will AAP be able to milk the anti-incumbency wave against the SAD or will the Congress bounce back?
Political instability: Uttarakhand witnessed a major political crisis last year, which was marked by a revolt against CM Harish Singh Rawat by MLAs from his own party - who turned to the BJP. The revolt led to his ouster and imposition of President's Rule in the state which lasted for nearly two months - till he was reinstated by the courts.
Personal and political differences may have been set aside for now, but tension has been simmering in the Congress. The BJP meanwhile is hoping it will be able to channel the instability to its advantage.
Corruption: Corruption is likely to emerge as a major poll issue in the state, especially with the incumbent being accused of having close and mutually beneficial links with the liquor, mining, sand and timbre mafia.
|The state government and administration have been accused of bungling funds.|
The Rawat government has also been accused of not installing police stations in places where animal smuggling is rampant - allegedly to shield criminals. The BJP has been highlighting these issues in rallies and yatras across the state. The Congress on the other hand is expected to focus on issues such as the BJP using unfair means to topple a democratically elected government and the Centre denying funds to the Congress government in the state.
Disaster and rehabilitation: Relief and rehabilitation work in Uttarakhand after the devastating flash-floods of 2013 has left a lot to be desired. The Congress may have replaced Vijay Bahuguna with Harish Rawat as CM following initial reports of mismanagement, but that did nothing to improve the situation on the ground.
The state government and administration have been accused of bungling funds meant for rebuilding and rehab and have so far dismissed demands for a CBI inquiry. The BJP is expected to take up the issue in a big way ahead of elections in the state, with the Prime Minister leading the charge.
RSS revolt: After his dramatic exit from the RSS - in September last year - former state chief of the Sangh, Subhash Velingkar, has queered the pitch for the ruling BJP by announcing an alliance with the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party for the upcoming Assembly elections.
The anti-BJP alliance will be contesting from 37 of the 40 Assembly seats and is expected to eat into the ruling party's voteshare. The alliance brings together parties that are opposed to English medium education and want to work towards preserving Goa's ethnicity, culture and language.
AAP factor: The Aam Admi Party is set to emerge as a game-changer in Goa when it makes its debut in the state this February. Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has gone to the extent of saying it is going to be an AAP versus the Rest contest - where the ruling BJP lead by Laxmikant Parsekar is faced with a leadership crisis and is battling charges of corruption. The Congress on the other hand has failed to play the role of an effective opposition in the last five years.
|The Aam Admi Party is set to emerge as a game-changer in Goa.|
Mining scandal: Goa is the third largest producer of iron ore in the country and conversely mining contributes to a large percentage of the state's GDP and provides employment to locals. However, unprecedented mining activities over the last decade - often with the blessings of the political class - has led to several environmental violations.
A judicial commission set up by the government in 2012 - following public protests - pegged the loss at Rs 34,935 crore to the exchequer, thanks to illegal mining. As the issue takes centrestage ahead of elections in the state, the challenge before political parties will be to strike a balance between the demands of the mining industry and locals.
Lack of CM faces: Even as the battle for Goa promises to be a nail-biter, a lack of prominent faces at the front could rob it of some of its sheen. Former CM and current Union minister Manohar Parrikar might fly down from Delhi to campaign for the BJP - but his successor Laxmikant Parsekar has failed to inspire confidence among party workers.
AAP has declared former inspector general of prisons Elvis Gomes as its CM candidate - a bureaucrat who took voluntary retirement to join politics. The Congress so far has failed to prop up a popular face and the anti-BJP alliance of MGP, GSM and Shiv Sena has declared Ramkrishna Dhavalika as the CM face.
Anti-incumbency: After 15 years of Congress rule, Manipur is set to vote in two phases on February 4 and 8. Post Assam, the BJP has set its eyes on the state and it will be crucial for the party to win Manipur to forward Modi's "Look East" policy.
Led by CM Okram Ibobi Singh, the Congress has so far managed to stay afloat despite waves of violence and blockades but battling anti-incumbency will be a challenge. However, the CM's decision to carve out eight new districts recently is being viewed as a master-stroke that might help it retain its hold on the state.
Irom Sharmila: Popularly known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, Sharmila broke her fast after 16 long years and announced her decision to challenge CM Ibobi on the political battle field in August last year. She may be seen as a political lightweight but Irom's entry into politics has ensured that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act once again becomes a top poll issue.
|Irom Sharmila may be seen as a political lightweight but her entry into politics has ensured that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act once again becomes a top poll issue.|
Inner-line permit: Manipur is going to the polls in the midst of strife and conflict with Naga groups blocking the main highway which is the lifeline of the state - following Ibobi's decision to carve out new districts.
The blockade, experts say, has come as a blessing in disguise for the CM who was under attack for failing to introduce the inner-line permit - a document required by outsiders to travel to protected areas.
The blockade has reportedly created an impression that the BJP is supporting the Nagas, resulting in local communities once again digging their heels behind the Congress.