Upper caste vote could hold key to who wins Etawah's Assembly constituencies in an election as lacklustre as this one

“I can give it to you in writing,” declares Jitendra Singh, the driver, as he proceeds to open the door of the moving taxi and spit out the paan in order to complete the sentence, “the Samajwadi Party will form the government this election, but with the help of Congress.”

Jitendra makes this dramatic prediction while his taxi gobbles up the miles on the smooth highway from Kanpur to Etawah — a distance of 170 km. Who knows, he may just be right. Traditionally, reporters arriving in a new land to cover elections or a war have relied on cabbies to get a feel of the ground reality — who's winning and who's losing. Moreover, in an election as lacklustre as this, when there is no visible mudda (issue) or hawa (wave), it is safest to go with what the cabbie tells you.

If only the people in Etawah, a stronghold of the Samajwadi Party, were as vocal as Jitendra Singh. Here, they seem to be wary about revealing their political allegiances. The most common response one gets in Etawah, be it in a tea stall or a grocery store or a restaurant or a home, is: “Hum is bare mein kuchh nahin bataa sakte, aap aagey kisi se pooch lijiye” (We can't really help you, please ask somebody down the road). Down the road, it's the same story. Their caution is understandable because it's an eyeball-to-eyeball contest in the district: they don't want to risk talking against a party because they are not sure who will win.

In the 2007 Assembly elections, the Samajwadi Party won three of the four constituencies in Etawah — Etawah city, Bharathana (where Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav himself contested and won) and Jaswantnagar. The fourth seat, Lakhana, then a reserved constituency, had gone to the Bahujan Samaj Party.

But the equation stands drastically altered in 2012 when, post-delimitation, Etawah goes to the polls with only three seats, two of which — Etawah city and Mulayam Singh's Bharthana (which fell vacant after he was elected to the Lok Sabha) were wrested by the Bahujan Samaj Party in the 2009 by-elections. Only Jaswantnagar, represented by Mulayam's brother Shivpal Singh Yadav, remains with the Samajwadi Party in the outgoing Assembly as far as Etawah is concerned.

Following these setbacks in his own backyard, Mulayam Singh cannot take Etawah for granted, notwithstanding the anti-incumbency. He will have to put up a fight. As Suraj Pal, who works at a hotel in Pakka Talab Chauraha, tells me: “Yahaan SP aur BSP ki kaante ki takkar hai” — it's a neck and neck fight between SP and BSP.

Suraj Pal begins to open up in the confines of the hotel room, after receiving a tip for the dinner he's brought me. “It's as simple as this,” he says sagaciously, “during Mulayam Singh's rule gundagardi (muscle-flexing by goons) is rampant but there is development, whereas during Mayawati's rule, there is no gundagardi but at the same time there is hardly any development and farmers suffer because of poor power and water supply. People have to choose between the two.”

“Now,” he continues, “people living in urban pockets will any day choose lack of development over gundagardi, whereas people in rural areas, especially farmers, want more power and water. So, as I said, it is a neck and neck fight.” The grey-haired Suraj Pal is only echoing what I've already heard in other districts of Uttar Pradesh.

But a lot also depends — as local journalists point out — on the upper caste vote. If the Brahmins and Thakurs decide to throw their weight behind Mayawati, it may not be good news for Mulayam Singh. But if they vote for the BJP, it is advantage Mulayam.

If there's any place in Etawah where voters openly predict the Samajwadi Party's victory, it is the village of Saifai (in Jaswantnagar constituency), the birthplace of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Saifai, about 20 km from Etawah city, may be a village of barely 6,000 people but it resembles the neighbourhood of a large city — minus the exploding population and the pollution. Here, Mulayam Singh, during his days in power, built, among other impressive structures, the Rural Institute of Medical Sciences and Research with swanky apartment blocks to house its staff and a world-class stadium complete with floodlights.

He wanted to make it a model township, but today it resembles a ghost town: the medical college may be functioning, but the thick growth of vegetation inside the ‘international stadium' — as the locals call it — is symbolic of what can happen to a politician's dreams when his foe is in power. But the two formidable white bungalows that stand a few hundred metres from these facilities are equally symbolic of the fact that he is the most powerful man in Saifai.

In the place of one of these bungalows once stood a humble dwelling where Mulayam Singh Yadav grew up. In this village, he grazed cattle as a boy, pursued his passion for wrestling and taught at the nearby Jain Inter College.

“He taught us civics when I was in the ninth standard. He was a strict teacher, he would beat us if we bunked classes,” recalls Prem Singh Yadav. The sun is dipping and Prem Singh and his neighbours are squatting on a wall by a dry pond, very close to Mulayam Singh's bungalows.

“He was a strict teacher. He was a wrestler. Then he became a politician. Was he feared in the village?” I ask.

“Do you think Netaji (as Mulayam Singh is called by his supporters) can build such a big party out of fear? You can build it only by love,” retorts Mukesh Yadav, a resident.

“Do you think he will win this time?”

“With full majority,” smiles Mukesh.

“Of course you will say that.”

“You don't have to go by what I say,” he says, “You are a journalist, you should know better.”