In retrospect, every election feels like a foregone conclusion. Whatever the UP election result, it will seem obvious. For now, between second and third phases of polling, there is no clarity.
Travelling thousands of kilometres from phase to phase, district to district, we can say for sure that nothing can be said for sure. An election wave makes itself heard even if you try not to hear it. For now, this UP election is an unexpected muddle. In this muddle, our field notes do have some points of clarity.
1. There is no Akhilesh wave.
Travelling in December last week and January first week, one heard voters say 'Akhilesh, Akhilesh' everywhere, and these weren't just Yadav or Muslim voters. Upper caste and non-Yadav OBC Hindus were also widely heard praising Akhilesh Yadav. Many were saying 'Modi for centre and Akhilesh for state.' Suddenly, one hears only Yadavs and Muslims respond to Akhilesh Yadav's branding and development work. When you ask voters about Akhilesh, most praise him or at least say he is ok, but other factors are coming in the way of pressing cycle on the EVM. One reason for this perhaps is the Akhilesh Yadav has frittered away his early gains by not campaigning till the end of January, as he was busy fighting for ownership of the cycle symbol with his estranged father and uncle. He lost the momentum. You have to ask people about Akhilesh and only then do they say positive things about him. By themselves, they do no bring him up (except Muslims). For instance, you don't hear many people talk about his promise of free smartphones.
2. SP-Congress alliance has diluted brand Akhilesh.
One reason why we perhaps don't hear so much 'Akhilesh, Akhilesh' these days is that since the SP announced its alliance with Congress, Akhilesh Yadav's branding has been replaced by joint branding of Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. Akhilesh Yadav's slogan "Kaam Bolta Hai"--work speaks for itself--has been replaced by "UP ko ye saath pasand hai" (UP likes them together). At the campaign level, this has not only side-stepped Brand Akhilesh, but also confused his messaging before voters. Should people vote to make him CM or should they vote because they like his friendship with Rahul Gandhi?
3. There is no Modi wave.
If there is no Akhilesh wave, there is no Modi wave either. Learning from its mistake in Bihar, the BJP has successfully prevented this election from becoming a Modi election. Modi is doing only 12 odd rallies in a Brazil-size state, in contrast to 30 plus rallies he did throughout the Bihar election. The BJP's campaign is about the BJP, not about Modi or a CM candidate face. The BJP's posters never have Modi alone, not even Modi and Amit Shah alone. They have a few state leaders of various castes and regions. The 2014 Modi wave saw even some Yadavs and Dalits vote for Modi. That's not happening this election.
4. Brand Modi is intact.
There may be no Modi wave but nobody is speaking negatively about Modi. Even the small section of upper castes disenchanted by the BJP for now, would vote Modi if it were a Lok Sabha election.
5. There is no Mayawati wave as her Dalit-Muslim alliance failed to take off.
There is no Mayawati wave either. Dalits complain about law and order, as do many non-Yadav OBCs. Unlike the past, they are not coming together against Yadav dominance in a big way as non-Yadav OBCs are heavily inclined towards the BJP this time. Mayawati's pitch for a Dalit-Muslim alliance has failed as Muslims are inclined towards the SP-Congress alliance.
6. BSP remains the weakest player, yet a dark horse.
There maybe no BSP or Mayawati wave, but the BSP this election is the party of choice for those who are unhappy with both the BJP and the SP-Congress. This is operating more at the constituency level. The BSP has the least bad candidate selection, done much before the BJP or SP-Congress. In many places, BSP has 'fresh' faces. It's impossible to say how much this would benefit the BSP, but with a solid Dalit vote bank, the BSP remains a force to reckon with even at its worst.
7. The SP-Congress alliance has consolidated Muslim votes, but lost some Hindu votes.
Until the SP-Congress alliance was announced, there was a lot of talk about whether Muslims would see the SP or the BSP as their first choice. The alliance ended that discussion. Only in seats where the SP candidate is not seen as winnable are the Muslims going with the BSP. Muslims are the only voters widely using the word Gatbandhan, or alliance. This has effectively brought about a Yadav-Muslim consolidation, much like 2012. At the same time it has reduced the attraction of non-Yadav Hindus, both upper castes and OBCs, towards Akhilesh Yadav as a CM who has tried to rise over caste and community. With an M-Y consolidation, the SP is reverting to its old self.
8. BJP's gains from communal polarisation are limited.
As Jati and Pratyashi, caste and candidate, dominate the public discussion on the election, the BJP's gains from communal polarisation are limited. High Muslim population in the first, second and sixth phases often turns the battle into an "H-M" one. But it's less H-M than usual. It's not 2014 when the memory of the 2014 Muzaffarnagar riots was fresh. The BJP's attempts to polarise have been delayed and inefficient. Its campaign over triple talaq for instance, didn't end up becoming a big issue. Besides, H-M polarisation often helps the SP in seats with large Muslim populations, especially if the Hindu vote is not seeing consolidation. In other words, the three phases with high Muslim population are unlikely to see a BJP sweep like 2014. They are more likely to be a mixed bag.
9. Muslims love Akhilesh.
It is funny how Akhilesh Yadav tried to tone down the SP's usual rhetoric around Muslim identity politics, yet it is Muslims who seem to be the most fond of him. Everywhere, Muslim voters are speaking of Akhilesh the way Modi fans speak of Modi. Muslim voters insist they are Akhilesh fans only because he delivers development without discrimination to all sections of society. They defend him on the high number of incidents of communal violence during his regime. Not just young ones, Muslims of all ages have bought Brand Akhilesh hook, line and sinker.
10. Poor ticket distribution is hurting both SP-Congress and BJP.
Part of the reason why this election is looking more intractable than it should be, is ticket distribution. The SP, Congress and BJP, all three are facing unhappy communities over the choice of tickets. There's rebellion on a lot many seats. Everywhere you can find their party workers complain about the choice of candidates. Jati and Pratyashi are a prime topic of conversation among voters everywhere. Upper castes are unhappy where the BJP has given tickets to OBCs and OBCs are unhappy where tickets have been given to upper castes. The SP-Congress have done a bad job of ticket distribution because of their family feud and a messy last minute alliance. But what's the BJP's excuse? No one knows.
11. Upper castes unhappy with BJP are going to BSP, in small numbers.
Smart and early ticket distribution is helping the BSP, though only a little. A small section of upper castes, especially Brahmins and Baniyas, who are unhappy with the BJP for whatever reason (demonetisation, tickets) are seeing the BSP as an option. Since this is happening silently, it is difficult to estimate the extent of this shift. For such voters, the SP-Congress is not an option because they don't want to vote with Muslims, don't like Yadav dominance in their constituency, or do not want to vote for the Congress. They appreciate Akhilesh Yadav but his image and work are not enough to make them press the cycle button.
12. Demonetisation is not an issue for the poor.
Very few non-traders complain about demonetisation. You can even find Yadavs and Dalits praise Modi for it. The November euphoria over fighting black money is no longer there. Yet, if you ask Modi supporters why they like Modi, they often say notebandi was great, and they are happy about news of tax raids and Modi's promise to clean up the economy of black money. This is especially true of the MBCs, the most backward castes. Demonetisation is still a net loss for Modi over the sweeping votes he got in 2014, but that the poor approve of the move even now is an indication that Modi's class narrative of becoming a messiah of the poor is working.
13. The trading community wants to send the BJP a message.
It's difficult estimate the extent, but the trading community--mostly but not only Baniyas--are reluctant to go and vote. One has heard from a few traders the figure of 20% who may sit at home. But there are also those voting SP or BSP to make the BJP lose, so as to send a message to the BJP. What they are most unhappy about is what they see as an attempt to brand them as black money hoarders and 'thieves' with 'tax terrorism'. Losing some of its core voters is bad news for the BJP, which is unable to either trumpet or defend demonetisation in its campaign. Like voters, the BJP too is trying to not talk about demonetisation, but it knows very well the silent undercurrent amongst traders.
14. Non-Yadav OBCs love Modi.
Ask them who they are voting for, and they say Modi. Not BJP or its candidate, but Modi. They have been impressed by Modi's policies and promises, are often inclined towards Hindutva, and are even attracted to Modi as one of them (Modi is from the Teli OBC community.) It is important to note that Jats in west UP are non-Yadav OBCs and they have deserted the BJP this time. It is safe to say that while non-Yadav OBCs are mostly with the BJP, they are also affected by changing caste equations and poor candidate selection affect them too. In Barabanki for instance, Kurmis are unhappy with both BJP and SP for not giving tickets to Kurmis in the region. That the BJP is in alliance with a Kurmi party in east UP is not enough for them. So while non-Yadav OBCs are mostly with the BJP, the consolidation is not like 2014.
15. Jats have deserted the BJP.
The RLD should thus win a few seats, but this will damage the BJP a lot more than benefit the RLD. The Jat desertion of the BJP in phase one has damaged its ability to build a hawa in its favour. Jat disenchantment with Modi is also the reason why communal polarisation was weaker than caste politics in phase one.
16. So who's winning? 'Samikaran' politics makes it hard to say.
"Equations are changing daily," is what one often hears by the socially influential people who dominate the village square. This UP election has become 403 elections, the constituency dynamic overriding all attempts of parties to create a statewide narrative that could turn into a wave.
17. Voters expect hung assembly.
Nine of ten people you speak to in a day say they expect a hung assembly. That doesn't happen these days. The days of unstable coalitions ended in Uttar Pradesh a decade ago. In 2014, the Lok Sabha saw India's first government with a single party majority in 30 years. And now UP's voters expect a hung assembly? Voters expect a hung assembly but that doesn't mean it will necessarily be a hung assembly. As only 2 of 7 phases have polled, anything can happen. This election is up in the air.
18. A wave could still come about.
Just because there is no wave yet doesn't mean there may be no perceptible wave in the next few days. After every phase there is potential for the election to turn.
Also in HuffPost: