Thousands of poll pundits have always been obsessed with the UP Assembly elections and often make poll predictions, which only confuse us and embarrass them later. 2017 is special for the manner in which the election is progressing, leaving many leading psephologists baffled. None of them want to make further predictions lest they get it wrong. The language of politics in UP has become nastier and aggressive; the burqa has become a symbol of bogus votes, while the graveyard and shamshaan a political playground. Electricity is no longer a mere necessity; it has emerged as a potent tool to fight political battles. Nationalism has suddenly become unfashionable and contentious, further confusing the nation we live in. A rape accused former minister in UP has become the symbol of lawlessness, while institutions have come crumbling down. The stakes are high for pollsters, news channels, netas, and not only for the BJP or Tipu or his newly found bonhomie with Rahul Gandhi. Exit polls will play it safe much like our neighbourhood astrologer who will look at your janam patri and tell you that your life is a mixed bag of good and bad. Expect the unexpected. When asked about the UP elections, all journalists, politicians or political analysts argue that this election is different. Every election is different and every year we add a million voters to the list. Much to the dismay of poll pundits, voters have become much more sophisticated today and the same goes for Muslims in UP. However, the debate about its consolidation around religious lines establishes its centrality in the political climate of Uttar Pradesh. Demography in a democracy can be a critical factor influencing electoral results and the Muslim-Yadav-Dalit-Backward calculus is proving to be just that.

However, the myth of the consolidation of the Muslim vote persists, even though history has plenty of examples showing that Muslims have voted strategically than due to class and religious concerns, except in cases of community based mobiliasation in 1946 and in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid. Today, neither is the Masjid nor the Ram Temple a central concern among voters in Ayodhya and Faizabad, leave alone in Uttar Pradesh. Yet the talk of consolidation of Muslim vote persists despite the sharp distinctions within the community along class and sectarian lines. Either very little is understood of the community, which is internally diverse and too much importance is given to religious factors in influencing their decision to vote. The hurriedly stitched alliance of the Samajwadi-Congress party represents a classic case of overestimation of the consolidation of the Muslim vote and underestimation other key factors in this election, such as law and order and end of chacha-bhatija raj. The number of educated unemployed in UP is a staggering example of the lack of successive governments to provide jobs and so the first time voters and young voters are a crucial constituency in this election. Another key component is women voters, who are hardly discussed except in a debate on burqas. The lack of security and threat of kidnapping concern them the most.

However, one cannot to deny the popularity of Akhilesh Yadav in north India, and not just in Uttar Pradesh. His accessibility and humility add to his charisma, not like the typical politician journalists are used to—netas who are increasingly inaccessible and rude. Akhilesh is like a breadth of fresh air. However, over reliance on Muslim consolidation might be Akhilesh’s undoing. It is clear that they are cultivating a vote bank that is more interested in defeating the BJP, rather than voting for the SP-Congress alliance. Negative voting does not seem to be the case. Neither are Muslims going for the BSP primarily because Behenji has allotted the maximum number of seats to them. Muslims in UP will be voting on local issues and for their local candidates, regardless of the alliance. They will certainly not be voting for the BJP neither is the BJP seeking their votes as it is aware of its constituents unlike other political parties. The maulvis and the ulemas do not enjoy mass support, primarily because they have done little for their people except push them around from one party to another. If media crews are making a beeline for Shia clerics or the Shahi Imam or the Rashtriya Ulema Council, it is because this is their tried and tested method of election coverage and reporting and not an indicator of how Muslims vote or how relevant are the maulanas. Ulemas and what they say are increasingly irrelevant to the Muslim youth; they find Asaduddin Owaisi more appealing. He is educated yet dresses and looks like many of them, he fires hard hitting questions that many of the so called show-boys dare not speak. The recent speeches and aggression of Akhilesh Yadav are well thought out, as the sitting Chief Minister knows what his constituents want. The dabang style and daring attitude of netas in this campaign need to be discussed, for it depicts the aspirations of an ambitious and unemployed graduate student in UP. Whether Muslim or Hindu, he is seeking someone who takes a stand, is hard-hitting and ready to stand up for his cause. The voter today is impatient, that Jat agitation and their distancing from the BJP after 2014 is a case in point. Muslims in UP are also demanding a fair share in representation, jobs and an end to the talk of sending them to Pakistan.

Demonetisation, on the other hand, has affected Muslims immensely like it has affected other communities as well, especially traders. However, it has not evoked a harsh reaction from people across party lines. Neither is this a vote about demonetisation nor against it. So demonetisation need not be over-estimated. Law and order in UP is a bigger issue and so is the uneven development in the state. The BJP seems to be in the race, but what is happening inside those polling booths makes everyone careful about making predictions. All sides claiming to win this election with an absolute majority is just lame election talk. It is neither too apparent and the voter is silent, similar to the situation in Punjab. Which political party is winning only depends on who you meet and speak to, for everyone makes a convincing case for the party they think will win.

Can we expect Mayawati to surprise us? That might be a possibility, but so is the possibility that UP might have a fractured mandate or BJP might emerge as the single largest party. The BJP has certainly caught up, but Mayawati has been a consistent third according to pollsters. Akhilesh might as well return as Chief Minister, much to the delight of many in Delhi and Lucknow. Along the bylanes of Sultanpur, a district in eastern UP, a voter, when asked about the prospect of the SP-Congress alliance making it on 11 March, argued that the last he had heard of the Congress in eastern UP was a Congress MLA, Jairaj Gautam in the late 1970s and 1980s. As for Akhilesh Yadav, the voter argues that there is much more to be done in eastern UP before you expect the voter to not vote along class and caste lines. Till then, caste, class and religion are your best bets in this election. Consolidation is just an overdramatised issue in the air-conditioned drawing rooms of Delhi.