The Election Commission of India has made elections less visible and less audible: No banners, no posters, no hoardings, no wall writings, no handbills, and, no blaring of loudspeakers. The fear of the Election Commission's Expenditure Observers, who are keeping a close vigil on actual expenditures by candidates, and video recording crucial happenings in constituencies, is a deterrent against any violations of the Model Code of Conduct. The Commission has also ensured the polls to be free from any serious violence and bloodshed, rigging or booth capturing.
Voters turn out has been low (first phase: 48 to 50%, second phase: 44%), in spite of the vigorous voters' mobilisation drive. While a scorching sun at 41 degrees Celsius, the harvesting season, and the Election Commission's stringent regulations may have deterred voters, there may be deeper reasons for voters not showing up.
People seem to have expressed their disapproval of the kind of choices political parties offer them by way of candidates. Why should criminals, non-serious and dysfunctional contestants attract people? People believe that political representatives, no matter from which party, are not really interested in problem solving and development.
Also, uncertainties about the next government and prime minister have created disillusionment among voters. And, finally, the Dalits and Muslims, both hurt by their respective party leaders, have shown less enthusiasm.
This election has not thrown up issues. It was thought that issues of national importance like terrorism, national security, infiltration of Bangladesis from across the border, the nuclear deal, recession, price rise despite the economy inching towards deflation, electoral reforms, corruption, criminalisation etc would be debated and discussed. But the people were in for disappointment. They are craving for parties that will bring substantive issues, clean contestants, and offer good and efficient government.
Uttar Pradesh aroused interest as a laboratory of social engineering experiments by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati during the 2007 assembly election. People are curious whether she would replicate that again. Her ticket allocation strategy gave an indication: 20 Brahmins, 20 Other Backward Classes, 17 Dalits, 14 Muslims, and 9 other upper castes (6 Thakurs, 2 Vaishyas, 1 Punjabi Khatri). Obviously, the focus is clearly on Brahmins; with just 7.5 percent population, they got 25 percent tickets.
But Brahmin-Dalit rapprochement does not seem to exist on the ground. Brahmins still have a sense of superiority and nurse the idea of helping only Brahmin candidates. Conversely, Mayawati has the potential to transfer Dalit votes to her Brahmin candidates. That makes BSP Brahmins strong contenders.
Muslims have played important role in the BSP's social engineering. Muslims are 18.5 percent strong in UP. In many constituencies, their concentration is even greater. They too are confident of Mayawati's ability to get Dalit votes (21 percent) transferred to them, and that makes the Dalit-Muslim combination formidable. Mayawati has given tickets to 14 Muslims from areas which are Muslim dominant and, hence, their chances of winning are quite bright.
Mayawati's social engineering experiments notwithstanding, Muslims are most likely to vote for Muslim candidates of any party if there is possibility of his winning. Otherwise, they would like to vote for the Congress. However, where the Congress is not in the fight, and they have to choose between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, they are likely to prefer the BSP.
The reasons are many. One, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav's love for Kalyan Singh, the prime accused in the Babri Masjid case, has emotionally hurt the Muslim community; their entire young generation in teens has been raised on Kalyan bashing by Mulayam. By embracing Kalyan, Mulayam and his party have suddenly lost its secular credentials.
Two, Muslims think that voting for the BSP may provide them greater security and better prospects in UP. The way Mayawati swiftly moved in the Varun Gandhi case was clear testimony of this.
Third, Mayawati gave them 14 tickets, equal to their share in the state's population.
But the most important catch is the BSP's potential to ensure the victory of Muslim candidates by getting Dalit votes transferred to them. The proof of this is the 2007 assembly election where the BSP got the largest chunk of 28 Muslims elected to the UP assembly. While Mulayam gives Muslims assurances, Mayawati is offering them a share in power.
The Samajwadi Party strategy has been self-defeating. What went into Mulayam's calculations to befriend Kalyan? Kalyan ensured the BJP's defeat in 36 assembly constituencies in the 2002 assembly election by forming the Rashtriya Kranti Party.
If that was the basis for embracing Kalyan, then Mulayam should have enquired - i. Did Kalyan get only Lodh (the community to which he belongs) votes in 2002? ii. Will all Lodhs choose Kalyan when there is a choice between the BJP and Kalyan? iii. Will all those Lodhs really go with Kalyan now; iv. Is there no difference between Kalyan's capability in getting Lodh votes transferred to his erstwhile RKP and the SP of Mulayam Singh? vi. Will the gains of Lodhs be offset by the loss of Muslims?
And why Mulayam did fail to work a pre-poll alliance with the Congress? It was he who dashed to the Congress to support it on the nuclear deal when others were deserting it; why was that spirit not kept in working an alliance especially when he knew that he was losing his Muslim constituency fast? The signals are not good for the Samajwadi Party, and it may have to lose a good number of seats.
Is there anything good about the saffron party in UP? Probably yes. So far, the BJP had been completely marginalised in UP politics and has suffered a steady decline after the Babri episode. The BJP has been short of issues and leaders, and suddenly lost contact with people. The Mandir may be an issue of faith to the Hindus of Uttar Pradesh, but they have refused to make it a political issue.
But the BJP has been rescued by other parties. The way non-BJP parties have addressed the secular-communal issue has caused resentment; they have created an impression that to talk Hindu and of Hindu interest is communalism; to talk Muslim and of Muslim interest is secularism!
Playing soft on terrorists, criminals, and anti-national people only because they happen to be Muslim hurts Hindu sentiments and forces them to polarise in the BJP's favour. It can only widen the gulf between Hindus and Muslims.
More, political parties do not hesitate to brand someone as communal if he is with the BJP (Naveen Patnaik, N Chandrababu Naidu, Kalyan Singh etc), but he becomes secular the moment he leaves the BJP! Such double standards about secularism baffle people.
There are also some good signals for the Congress. Muslims are looking to the Congress as an alternative window if the party was really in the race. Unfortunately, the Congress decision to field candidates in most constituencies in Uttar Pradesh came late as a reaction to the formation of the Fourth Front (Mulayam-Lalu Yadav-Ram Vilas Paswan).
No Congressmen anticipated this, so there were no preparations at the grassroots level, and traditional Congressmen had either become indolent or shifted to other parties.
Obviously, there were no serious takers for the Congress tickets, and there is a total wreck of the Congress party organisation at the grassroots level.
The Congress also missed on the Dalits. It realised, though late, that the Dalits were not the BSP's exclusive domain. The party failed to pay early attention to the fact that only 44 percent Dalits were actually voting in UP and about 56 percent were not. The mobilisation of this segment could have totally changed the electoral landscape in Uttar Pradesh.
The Congress initiative to woo Dalits, even if late, has made Mayawati restless, charging in all her campaign speeches that 'by eating with Dalits and spending nights with them, poverty cannot be removed' -- a veiled reference to ridicule Rahul's efforts to woo Dalits.
The Congress efforts to retrieve its erstwhile rainbow character by bringing together Muslims, Dalits and upper castes could change the political climate in Uttar Pradesh in the days to come.
Dr A K Verma teaches politics at the Christ Church College, Kanpur.