Five months is a long time. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, it is the time left before the State officially goes to the polls. Yet judging from the drum beats and the slogans, the rath yatras and the roadshows, the VVIP State is booted up and ready to go. In this toughest of poll arenas, ruled by multiple imponderables, political parties must hit the ground running or find themselves left behind.

To survive in U.P., parties had to raid one another's bases, fashioning ever new building blocks out of castes and religions, themselves founded on smaller and smaller sub-national identities. Here, nothing could be static — not yesterday's loyalties, not yesterday's issues, not yesterday's line-up of parties. In the fading months of 2011, Mayawati, whose rainbow coalition of Dalits, forward and backward castes won her a majority in 2007, would throw another ace at her opponents: batwara (division of U.P.). The objective, as anyone could see, was less to get the division implemented than to scare and scatter the Opposition, which would thrash about for a suitable response.

Arrival of Peace Party

End-2011 would also mark the grand arrival of Dr. Mohammad Ayub's Peace Party – modelled on the Bahujan Samaj Party but with poorer Muslims forming the base and mostly Hindus as candidates. In the words of party functionary Yusuf Ansari, “So far only Mayawati could fully transfer her Dalit votes. Now Dr. Ayub will do the same with his Muslim votes.” It was undoubtedly a tall, untested claim. Yet the massive buzz around the party, with Lucknow's decision-making circles pitching election-2012 as a five-cornered contest (the fifth corner obviously made up by the Peace Party), indicated that Dr. Ayub could potentially cause huge damage, cutting principally into the Muslim constituency of the Samajwadi Party, but also possibly nibbling at the poorer OBC votes of the BSP and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The deep impact of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign and the Congress' Muslim reservation card, could only add to the confusion. Yet one thing was clear: Even Ms Mayawati's harshest critics were willing to concede that, hurt and damaged as her party was, she was still ahead of her adversaries.

On the road from Lucknow to Gorakhpur, through Allahabad, Varanasi, Mau and Basti, it was evident that the 2007 magic — when the only name anyone heard was Mayawati — had dissipated. Maya of 2011 evoked a mix of response, ranging from anger and dismissal to grudging admiration and rock-solid support. Surely, only the very naïve would dare write off the BSP's boss woman. Indeed, if the BSP was down, its principal rival, the SP, did not seem in top shape either. As a senior government official in Lucknow remarked: “As of now, her return to power looks difficult. But look at the state of her opponents. Things remaining the same, the BSP will emerge as the single largest party.”

Caricature of itself

Still nudging the third spot, the BJP appeared set to improve its tally. Over the past decade, the BJP, propelled to the top by Lal Krishna Advani's 1991 rath yatra and Hindutva's polarising appeal, had become a caricature of itself. ‘Me-too' yatras by sundry State BJP leaders evoked a yawn — even among the party's diehard supporters. In 2007, the BSP cannibalised the BJP, taking away its core forward caste voters, and also sections of its OBC support. On a downward spiral since the 1996 Assembly election, the BJP crashed to 51 seats for a vote share of 17 per cent in 2007. Allahabad, the seat of savarna (forward castes) power, epitomised the change: The BSP swept the district.

Five years on, Allahabad displayed little of that overt enthusiasm, with the proudly Brahmin Mishrajis and Tiwarijis, who had queued up behind Ms Mayawati, claiming today that their 2007 vote was not for the BSP's iron lady but against Mulayam Singh. Allahabad High Court lawyer Gauri Shankar Mishra mocked at the 2007 BSP slogan, dusted up and recycled by the party for use in 2012: Brahman shank bajayega, haathi aage jayega (the elephant will march ahead with the brahmin blowing the conch shell). “So we will keep blowing the conch shell while she rides high? No way.”

The forward castes complained that the BSP's largesse for Brahmins had gone mostly to the family of State Cabinet Minister and trusted Maya aide Satish Chandra Mishra. Ironically, this fact was confirmed by Ms Mayawati herself. At the November 12 Brahmin Mahasammelan she hosted in Lucknow, she read out a long list of names of Mishra family beneficiaries, going on to describe the posts and sops as a return gift for her aide's loyalty and devotion. Naturally, the announcement did not amuse those outside of the charmed circle.

Significantly, the BJP, which had become an object of pity in 2007, cropped up repeatedly in forward caste conversations, with many remembering the “golden days” of Kalyan Singh, and many more wishing for a return to the “corruption-free” regime of “Atalji” (Atal Bihari Vajpayee). Not everyone felt this way though. Vidya Bhushan Upadhyaya, a powerful Brahmin name from a family of lawyers and judges, said Ms Mayawati towered over her rivals, and he himself backed her sarvajan (all castes) project. There was also a sense among the forward castes that if the fight narrowed down to the top two, they would have no option but to plump for the BSP over the SP.

‘Down-and-out'

In all the conflicting voices and views, if there was unanimity of opinion on any one thing, it was on the “down-and-out” status of the Congress. The Anna effect was deep and pervasive, reaching as far as villages in interior eastern U.P. At a tiny village tea stall in Dhuriapar in Gorakhpur, a cluster of impoverished villagers, sipping tea, acknowledged Anna Hazare as a factor in the coming election. Elsewhere too, the Anna name easily tripped off the tongue, suggesting both a familiarity with the man and identification with the issue of corruption. For the Congress, briefly attaining superstardom with 21 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, nothing could be worse than having to hear that inflation had combined with corruption to push it back to the drawing board. This despite the continuing goodwill for Rahul Gandhi, “a good boy surrounded by bad, corrupt people.” The party's hope would now rest on the Congress-Ajit Singh alliance clicking in west U.P and the Gandhi son somehow managing to outwit his clearly smarter rivals.

The first indication of how things stood in political U.P. was available in the Lucknow office of a mid-ranking government official. His personal attendant —who lives in a village off the State capital — said he was willing to bet his last rupee on “behenji”. Why? Because she had a stranglehold on the Dalit votes and the plus votes (the forward caste votes she added in 2007) would “never, never” go to the SP. Also her government ran many pro-poor schemes. Arun Mishra, a local journalist, challenged the attendant to go to Allahabad where “baspa [BSP] will be wiped out this time. Brahman gaya, behenji gayee [brahman gone, behenji will also go].” A Dalit journalist who had dropped in, added his own perspective: “Dalits don't like the fact that it is still Brahmin Raj in Lucknow. Look at the number of Brahmin Ministers in the Cabinet. But the Dalit will not go anywhere, and if she has lost the Brahmins, she has made up for it through significant inroads into the most backward castes.” The bemused official around whom the debate raged gave his verdict: “It is going to be a hung house.”

Broad trends

The best place to test out the claims and counter claims was on the ground, and at the end of a 10-day tour, a few broad trends could be detected. The BSP's “plus votes” had fragmented. Dalits, who worshipped their behenji, had begun to complain. In the Ambedkar villages, spruced up for the big match, villagers showered praise on Ms Mayawati, but were bitterly critical of officials who “defied behenji's orders.” At Parsa Jafar chauraha in Basti, a clutch of Dalits spoke of “intolerable levels of corruption” and insisted that the forward castes prospered at the cost of Dalits. Yet through the whining there was no doubt that their vote would go only to “our behenji.” The Yadavs were fully with the SP, but not the Muslims who claimed to have tired of unfulfilled promises, and wanted to “see results” before voting. The BJP banked on a return of the savarna vote, and the Congress groped about in the dark.

As an official summed up: “There is no goonda raj today. The BSP government has implemented good schemes, and cracked down on corruption. But the poor continue to be harassed by lower-level extortion and corruption. And, most of all, the 2007 chemistry has gone missing.”

The “plus votes” that brought Mayawati to power in U.P. have fragmented. But she is still reckoned to be ahead of her rivals.