“Muslims, especially young Muslims, like Rahul Gandhi but when it comes to voting, they will go with Mulayam Singh” — Mohammad Shahnawaz, Lucknow shopkeeper.
“Yes, there is a lehar (wave) for the Samajwadi Party (SP). The Mayawati Government is the worst we have had. But locally we are voting for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate, Yusuf Ali, because he is from our village.” — Nabi Hasan, a butcher from Chamraua in Rampur, who claims a steep loss in business because of raids by overzealous BSP inspectors.
These are among the many conflicting voices that have made elections, 2012, in Uttar Pradesh a befuddling, exasperating experience for travelling journalists trying to get a handle on the voter mood in India's most politically-watched State. The big picture seems clear enough: the plus votes (votes in addition to the core vote) that gave Mayawati a sensational victory in 2007 have fragmented. The SP, which seemed to have lost its way, is robustly back in the reckoning, having rid itself of the Amar Singh-Bollywood baggage and spearheaded now by the old-young team of Mulayam Singh and ward Akhilesh Yadav. The support for the “cycle” (the SP's symbol) is unmistakable with even sections of previously antagonistic forward castes rooting for the Yadavs, if only to be able to defeat Ms Mayawati and push back the Dalit upsurge so evident during the BSP's term in office.
But there are stunning breaks in this overall narrative. On the way from Lucknow to Malihabad, I make the usual “journo” stops for a feedback on the election. The consensus is that Ms Mayawati has squandered away a wonderful opportunity to do some good for U.P. Suddenly, the road disappears and a surge of blue gushes forth as if from nowhere. Hundreds of thousands of men and women emerge from nooks and crannies, carrying the BSP's blue flag. Are they headed for a Mayawati rally? I ask. “No, they are going to the local BSP candidate's meeting,” replies a shopkeeper, matter-of-factly explaining, “these people are like that only. Very committed.”
A few kilometres away, in the almost empty Chamar village of Saimabad, a young girl, Sarojini Kumari, stands outside her brick and mud home. A first-time voter, she says she didn't go to the rally only because someone needs to be at home. Will she vote the BSP? “But of course,” she retorts, annoyed that I should even ask. Shiv Prasad, a private tutor, also didn't attend the rally. “Because my mind is made up,” he says, adding, “can any other regime give us the self-respect we have claimed for ourselves today? From people shunning us, we have come to a stage where we can stand as equals.” In faraway Pagbada in Moradabad, Rakesh Kumar, a Jatav (West U.P. counterpart of chamar ), decisively ends Lucknow speculation about cracks in the Dalit vote bank: “You will hear a hundred complaints from our guys about the BSP. Lekin kehna kuch hai, lagana wahin hai. Bolenge zabaan se, lagayenge dimaag se (in the end we will all vote the BSP).”
As against this solid vote block, is the dishevelled state of the BSP itself. The government has lost over a dozen ministers to corruption charges.
The Chief Minister's closest confidant, Naeemuddin Siddiqui, has come under the Lokayukta scanner and Ms Mayawati has dropped over a 100 sitting MLAs, leading to frustration and anger in the party. A disgruntled BSP MP says the party is losing seats from everywhere. Yet in the same breath he also speaks of the awesome power of Ms Mayawati's fully transferable vote bank: “With 18 per cent votes guaranteed, the BSP has to touch at least a hundred seats.”
The year 2007 and now
The U.P. election story is complicated by the many micro pictures within it. The wind is undoubtedly in the SP's favour but its Muslim support has become vulnerable to poaching by the newly aggressive Congress and the Dr. Ayub-led Peace Party with its clear objective to wean away poorer Muslims.
Indeed, the crucial difference between 2007 and 2012 is this: In 2007, the BSP was the clear leader (206 seats for 30.43 per cent), followed by the SP (97 seats for 25.43 per cent). Between them, the two giants had 303 seats for a vote share of nearly 66 per cent. The Congress and the BJP were a distant third and fourth, together accounting for only 73 seats. The contest today is far more cut-throat, with the Congress and the BJP determined to take a larger share each. Add to this the multitude of small parties, and you get paper-thin victory margins. If the vote against the BSP splits in many directions, then Ms Mayawati's vote bank will give her an advantage. If the anti-BSP votes tactically consolidate in the SP's favour, then it could be the SP all the way.
There is a simpler calculation. In the 2002 Assembly election, the SP won 143 seats for a vote share of 25.37 per cent. In 2007, with its vote share remaining nearly the same, the party's seat tally dropped to 97. This fall owed to the BSP's superlative performance. Today, with the “ lehar ” seen to be in its favour, the SP surely cannot do any worse than it did in 2007, when it was seen to be decimated. By the same token, the BSP, even accounting for a decline in its vote share, ought not to fall below its 2002 performance of 98 seats for 23 per cent. That said, a caveat: In the-first-past the post system, how you fare depends more on how your rivals fare.