You know you are walking on treacherous ground when not merely all journalists but even fund managers on blue (stock market) channels start calling an election the same way—hung house, the SP in front, BSP distant second, Congress and BJP fighting for the wooden spoon. So don’t count on me calling this election any which way. All I can do is admit that it is one of the most confusing ever. But if in five days of travel, you do not find one Dalit who is leaving Mayawati, one Yadav who is deserting Mulayam, when Brahmins are generally with the BJP, and the Muslims split 7-3 between the SP and the Congress, you can say only one thing for sure. That even after one of the longest campaigns ever, this UP election is still being fought from fortified votebank trenches. Nobody has been able to rouse the voters into venturing out of these. In 2007, Mulayam’s mafia raj and Mayawati’s image as a tough administrator had persuaded a critical mass of upper-caste voters to walk across the battlelines of caste. No such thing is evident this time.
The BJP has had the strangest approach to this election, considering that before Mayawati in 2007, it was the last party to win a full majority in 1991. They look like cutting their losses rather than winning. So no leader has been projected in a state where they have produced two chief ministers. Uma Bharti’s import from Madhya Pradesh is as much to avoid having to name a local leader, and thereby splitting the party, as to keep her off Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s back in their home state. Narendra Modi is unwilling to expose himself to even campaign in an unwinnable state. It is cute now how many BJP leaders you run into on campaign trail who tell you, we gave in too early, we misread the mood, only if we had come to UP with greater optimism, etc, etc. The party’s minimalistic agenda is to finish ahead of the Congress. For that, it counts on its loyal, upper-caste voters and workers. The Congress, it says, has neither.
Arun Jaitley joins us over dinner in Kanpur and speaks his usual mix of candour and optimism. His theory: this was building into a development-oriented campaign like Bihar, until the Congress’s promise of reservations for backward Muslims reversed it, and sent every voting group back where