India has got used to clear verdicts.
Narendra Modi won an outright majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the first time in 30 years that voters gave a party an unambiguous mandate to run the country.
India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh, has picked a clear winner in the last two elections. Mayawati-led Bhaujan Samaj Party won an absolute majority in 2007. She was ousted by the Samajwadi Party in 2012 that won 225 seats in the 403-member House.
In neighbouring Bihar, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress grand alliance won a majority in 2015. The JD(U)-BJP alliance had done the same five years earlier.
Stable governments may be the new normal.
But it was not too long ago that hung assemblies were the norm, with governments failing to last the five-year term. India saw three general elections between 1996 and 1999. Uttar Pradesh, which is voting for the second phase on Wednesday, too, saw frequent changes.
It is impossible to know who got the lead in the first phase on February 8 when 73 seats went to the polls but the initial assessment is there is no clear winner.
Social groups have voted differently in the region where Jat and Muslim voters have a big presence. The contest is multipolar and a fragmentation is highly likely.
Things may change in the remaining six phases but a possibility of a hung House when results are declared on March 11 is worth looking at.
Narrative, leader, wide coalitions work
A single big poll issue, a personality-centred contest and wide caste coalitions lead to decisive outcomes.
As a sense builds up that a particular party is winning, floating voters join in because they want stability and also because of peculiar Indian voter behaviour -- the vote must go to the winner otherwise it is “wasted”.
In 2007, Mayawati promised an end to SP’s goondaraj, or lawlessness, positioned herself as a firm leader who would enforce law of the land and came up with her version of social engineering as she reached out to upper castes.
She not only got the votes of Dalits, her support base, but also those of Brahmins and non-Yadav other backward classes.
In 2012, young Akhilesh Yadav presented himself as the new face of the SP and successfully tapped into the resentment against the alleged corruption and indulgences of Mayawati. While Yadavs and Muslims, as expected, voted for the SP, upper castes, who were tired of Mayawati’s shenanigans, chose Akhilesh as well.
It was a mix of Hindutva and Vikas that saw the BJP sweep Uttar Pradesh in 2014 – winning 71 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. The “Modi wave” swept away caste and identity calculations, as Jats, Yadavs, non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits voted the BJP along with upper castes, the party’s traditional vote bank.
Local, narrow politics is back
But, things are different this time.
There is no overarching narrative or a one leader setting the poll agenda.
Society is deeply fragmented and these divisions are getting reflected in electoral politics. Unlike the largely bipolar contests of the last two times, the state is seeing three-horse race, with the BJP, otherwise on the margins of the state politics, keen to repeat its Lok Sabha success.
All the three players – the SP-Congress, BSP and BJP – have a robust set-up and a loyal social base.
Yes, Akhilesh has made this election about himself and is showcasing vikas (development works done by his government). And, it is true that he is well-liked.
But, every region has its own interpretation of the message.
In central UP, especially in the Yadav belt, and among Muslims, there is an overwhelming support for the young chief minister.
But this narrative has not caught up, at least not yet, across castes and geographies.
The reasons could be many -- delay in ticket distribution, last-minute alliance with the Congress but the biggest of them all is the late start to the campaign as party battled a bitter power struggle.
While there is no anti-incumbency mood, many of Akhilesh’s MLAs are unpopular and are likely to incur voters’ wrath.
For a clear win, the SP needs an Akhilesh wave to override local arithmetic but it is not visible, especially in west Uttar Pradesh.
Mayawati has again tried to make this election about herself and law and order. The state has seen riots, communal violence and several crimes against women but the anger is not as palpable as it was in 2007.
Goondaraj, a term that has come to be associated with the SP, is not the biggest poll issue this time.
In terms of social groups too, Mayawati, is the first choice of only her core base, the Jatavs, while other groups such as Muslims or upper castes may vote for her tactically, depending on candidates.
The BJP has Modi to ride on and the PM’s popularity has not diminished but it neither has a popular local face nor an agenda.
Its demonetisation move is not paying electoral dividends. It is no longer seen as a party of vikas as it was in 2014. It is because of these reasons that it has to rely on religious polarisation, particularly in west UP. The morale of the cadre is low and by all accounts, ticket distribution has been faulty.
The party continues to be the first choice of Brahmins and a substantial number of non-Yadav OBCs -- and these are important constituencies.
But, here, too, there are variations.
In west UP, the Jats appear to have voted against the BJP in large numbers, Thakurs have not consolidated completely and turnout may be lower among Banias.
Add it all up and what does it saw?
It suggests that politics is being driven by local considerations, the dynamic is changing in every constituency and there is no state-wide hawa, or wave.
It also says social fragmentation is visible -- and each group has found a political outlet.
And that is why it is possible that the result will be a mixed bag with no clear winner.
This is not a prediction, for it would be foolish to foretell the outcome in a state with 200 million people. The situation is also rapidly evolving as social groups and individuals make fresh choices and as campaigning momentum shifts.
There is a good chance that after the second or the third phase, there may be a greater clarity on who is leading and voters may push that party or formation over the finish line.
But, it is time to remain open to the possibility that after a stable decade, UP may be going back to the turbulent 1990s.