Examining the ‘Muslim vote’ has long been an election pastime of journalists who learn the same lesson every time; there is no such monolith and in the absence of a ‘Black Swan’ moment that galvanises the community into a singular cohesive response, their vote in Uttar Pradesh, like elsewhere in India, usually gets fragmented by local preferences and their own sub-castes and groups.

Yet, with Muslims at 19% of the population in UP, every party’s poll strategists slice and dice how they imagine the vote will go.

And this time, despite Mayawati’s assiduous wooing of the community with 97 tickets to Muslim candidates, the ‘gatbandhan’ between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi is still hoping for arithmetic to push a rare consolidation – with the Chief Minister pulling in the bulk of the vote and the Congress providing incremental gains.

Perhaps anticipating this possible Muslim consolidation and using it to build its own counter-narrative, the BJP, which was otherwise counting on the disparate and floating non-Yadav OBC vote (they make up nearly a third of the population) has returned with a hint of Hindutva in their campaign.


The election has become a direct face-off between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The absence of a local candidate to lead the BJP campaign could have costs for the party in a state it swept with 71 seats in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 – because people clearly distinguish between national and local polls. BJP voters I met lamented the absence of a clear state leader repeatedly.

One BJP voter said to us, “It’s not as if Modi is going to come and govern Uttar Pradesh, is he?


There is a distinct and unusual absence of widely felt anti-incumbency or anger with either chief protagonist. Law and order is a lurking issue and some sitting MLAs are unpopular but mostly people have good things to say about both the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister. Even BJP voters give credit to Akhilesh Yadav for attempting to modernise roads and create infrastructure. “Kaam to kiya hai Akhilesh ne” said one farmer to me, “Modiji logon ko pasand hai lekin 2014 vali lehar nahi hai unke liye.”


Whether you are a critic or a fan, notebandi is not playing out as a gigantic electoral issue.

The BJP and the Prime Minister have clearly managed to control the political messaging of the contentious move to wipe out 86% of the currency overnight in November

But there is considerable damage to the informal sector and among small artisans like leather workers, brass traders and craftsmen; Chikankari workers at Lucknow’s famous SEWA centre broke down in tears when we met them as they had been unable to pay their staff for the last month. Yet the sharpest criticism of notebandi we saw was from Muslim communities, many of whom work in these sectors and would have not cast a Modi vote in any case.


There may be no ‘leher’ or wave, but more people are talking about Akhilesh Yadav in this election than any other individual

He has positioned himself as a stable, contemporary leader, avoiding - for the most part - any wildly rhetorical claims, and is seen to be someone who finally had the courage to shake off the sullied old guard of the Samajwadi Party. The ‘Gujarat Ke Gadhey’ swipe is seen even by insiders of his campaign to be uncharacteristic of him; he has largely stayed away from negative politics in his speeches. His non-contentious family image, his youthful embrace of the bicycle, his pride in the new waterfront along the Gomti River or the Expressway between Kanpur & Agra have all evoked a generally favourable response among people we met.

The one chink in his armour is law and order; his decision to retain Gayatri Prajapati on the ticket in Amethi, despite a rape FIR, hasn’t gone down well. Ironically, Prajapati is a minister he sacked earlier from the cabinet before reinducting him as part of a peace deal. Keeping him on in Amethi was also a way of drawing red lines vis-a-vis the Congress in the Gandhi bastion and showing them who's boss. But Prajapati is not good optics, even with Akhilesh refusing to share the stage with him in Amethi.


Given the personal popularity of the Chief Minister, the generic attacks on him by the opposition aren’t enough to cut it. The BJP has repeated some of its Bihar mistakes in Uttar Pradesh: overexposing the PM, choosing not to declare a Chief Ministerial candidate, and not recognising that understated can sometimes work just as well as flamboyant, if other variables are favourable. The Fatehpur speech by the PM that draws in Hindus and Muslims, Holi and Eid, Diwali and Ramzan, betrays a certain level of nervous anxiety. Local leaders like Yogi Adityanath have already been openly inflammatory in their speeches - Adityanath was the first to draw comparisons between state expenditure on graveyards and crematoriums

With the Prime Minister shifting gear and endorsing that theme, the BJP has fallen back on an old trope; the hypocrisy of secularists and ‘appeasement’ politics.

This is now set to be the BJP’s main narrative in the absence of any other.


Mayawati's decision to embrace Mafiosi like Mukhtar Ansari contrasted with Akhilesh Yadav's determined shunning of him (as well as gangsters like Atiq Ahmed), makes hers the party most openly courting Muslims in the cynical, old-style way. The endorsement by Jama Masjid’s Shahi Imam – a cleric dismissed by large numbers of Muslim voters as irrelevant – only underlines this cynicism. So the tag of ‘Mullah Mulayam’ would today fit Mayawati better than Akhilesh. This is not translating into widespread Muslim support. While some Muslim voters I met did prefer her to the UP CM, the reasoning they offered was the lax handling of the Muzaffarnagar riots.

For the most part, Muslim voters are wary that Mayawati could join hands with the BJP in a hung-assembly scenario.

And unless the local candidate is seen to have a bigger winning capacity than the SP nominee, most Muslims I spoke to love Akhilesh Yadav. A young woman told me, “I am not supporting him because I am Muslim; I like him because he is young and most deserving of all candidates.”


Though Congress supporters argue that its 8-10% vote share is critical to Akhilesh Yadav’s dreams of becoming Chief Minister, on the ground, there is very little conversation about Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi is barely mentioned in conversations in which the debate comes down to Modi and Akhilesh Yadav, and in clusters, about Mayawati.

The arithmetic of the alliance may help the Congress be part of a government and inch upwards from the 28 seats it won in 2012, but the party is barely a talking point. That should worry the Gandhis, especially for 2019.



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