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An Indian man displays the indelible ink mark on his finger after casting his vote in Varanasi, India Image Credit: AP

In a few weeks from now, the result of the Uttar Pradesh assembly election will look like a foregone conclusion. With the benefit of hindsight, it will make perfect sense.

It is important therefore to capture the defining contours of the election campaign as they are felt now. What is it that voters are saying, thinking, feeling, arguing, rationalising and ignoring as they decide whom to vote in and whom to vote out. After travelling in varied parts of Uttar Pradesh, in the very subjective opinion of your opinionated columnist, here are the 12 defining aspects of this election.

These 12 factors are based on voters’ perception of the election as of now. Of course, this perception will change depending on the result.

Two is a contest

In most places when you ask voters what the election is looking like, they will say, ‘There are two main contenders here’. This is different from past elections when the UP election has looked like a three- or even four-cornered contest. The two sides are the opposition Samajwadi Party (SP) and the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

‘Down to the wire’

All right, so it’s between SP and BJP. But who’s winning? The answer voters will give you on many seats is, ‘It’s very close’, ‘It’s very tough’, ‘Whoever wins will win by a close margin’. No, they are not saying this to hide their own preferences. They’re saying this because far too many seats actually look like they’re going down to the wire. The result may or may not reflect this, but it is important to note that it is being perceived to be close as of now.

Anybody seen the postman?

This election looked like a cakewalk for the BJP two months ago. If it has become ‘close’ in the perception of many voters, it is because the BJP has repeated far too many of its sitting 312 MLAs. And most of them are not liked. This writer heard voter after voter complain about the BJP MLAs. Quite a few said they were shifting their allegiance away from the BJP despite approving of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

People complain they don’t have access to power to resolve absolutely anything because the BJP lawmaker they elected was nowhere to be seen. The poor BJP lawmaker complains that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath made sure the bureaucracy is insulated from the politicians. But where do the people go when the bureaucracy is not doing the “needful”, as we say in Indian English.

‘Yogi is fine’

Chief minister Yogi Adityanath himself seems to have won over the approval of a large number of Hindu voters as a leader and administrator. While the anger is directed at MLAs, the chief minister gets an ‘OK’. This is a marked improvement in his image from the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This change is attributed to marked reduction in street crime, lack of corruption allegations, and a tight grip over the administration and the polity.

SP-RLD have the best candidates

Once you start looking at this election seat by seat, you notice that the Samajwadi Party and its largest ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, have chosen the best possible candidates in most places. They have been able to do so because of the bi-polarity of this election, as the Bahujan Samaj Party becomes a distant third everywhere except a handful of the 403 constituencies. It also helped SP-RLD that the BJP has chosen to repeat most of its candidates, thus reducing competitive demand for the “winnable” challengers.

‘Eighteen to Thirty’

While we tend to read Indian elections through caste and religion, the most striking shift this election is of the job-seeking youth. In Sevapuri constituency in Varanasi, a group of Maurya (lower OBC) men tell me they’re voting for the BJP despite hating their candidate, because they are happy with Yogi and Modi.

A young man interrupts to say he’s voting for the SP. “You will find 18-30 year olds are voting for the SP in large numbers because the Yogi government has not created any jobs. And this is across caste.” Everyone else starts agreeing.

No pull factor for Akhilesh

You can find many voters shifting from the BJP to SP due to push factors such as unemployment. But there are almost no pull factors towards Akhilesh Yadav. You won’t meet many saying they are voting for SP because it has promised 300 units of free electricity every month or because it is supporting a caste census. This is due to the SP’s lack of resources, relatively smaller army of party workers, weakness in social media and so on.

Small but significant shifts away from the BJP

Like job-seeking youth, there are quite a few small but significant groups of people moving away from the BJP. These shifts are significant because for three elections — 2014, 2017, 2019 — the BJP seemed to have a hypnotic hold over these voters. If you asked them about unemployment for example, they would say, “Can Akhilesh or Rahul Gandhi create jobs?” Not anymore.

Others such moving away from the BJP are some among the lower bureaucracy unhappy over changes in their pension structure, some farmers unhappy over stray cattle, some Jats in western Uttar Pradesh unhappy over attempts to privatise crop procurement, some caste groups in some regions moving to SP to follow their leaders, and so on. These shifts should reflect in the BJP’s vote share even if it wins a majority of seats.

The anger against stray cattle has reduced

Yes, you will find farmers complaining about stray cattle. The losses that stray cattle cause for farmers are significant. Since farming is the largest profession, this issue alone could have defeated the BJP. But the anger has reduced a lot since the issue first erupted.

Travelling in UP in 2019 and 2022, one sees far fewer cattle on the roads now because many have been moved to cattle shelters. The problem isn’t over, and its impact varies from region to region, but it has certainly reduced.

Top headline — Free ration

When you ask voters why they are voting for the BJP, the first thing they say is free ration. Without free ration, the BJP would have been facing the anger of the poorest. Free ration can save a few hundred rupees a month for a family, equal to the daily wage for a day or two.

More importantly, the government doubled the ration allocation to help people tide over the economic distress caused by Covid. Even the SP has had to indirectly acknowledge the popularity of free ration by warning voters the BJP may cancel free ration after the polls.

Muslim voter gets wiser

The most un-talked about change in this election is among the Muslim voter. The decimation of the BSP has meant there is no confusion among Muslim voters about who the challenger to the BJP.

Having jailed Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan in criminal cases, there are no ‘bad’ Muslims left in the SP who might help Hindu-Muslim polarisation with controversial statements. The SP looks less “pro-Muslim” in 2022 than it did in 2017 despite winning more Muslim votes.

Jatavs not shifting

There is much discussion about Mayawati’s core Jatav voters now that the BSP is a distant third in perception. Some Jatavs are voting for the BJP here and there, and an odd Jatav youth will tell you he is voting for SP, but largely the Jatavs are still with the BSP. The decline in the BSP’s votes is not on account of the Jatavs but the Muslims and others.

Some of the above factors help the BJP and some help the SP. Which ones will weigh heavier for the UP voter, we shall know in less than a week from now.