MEERUT: One had expected the Muslims in Western Uttar Pradesh to be quieter, silent and reticent---given the three plus years of unmitigated communal distress in this part of the state going to the polls in the first phase on February 11. But despite the fact that candidates have not even been finalised, the minorities are clearly finding solace in the surging popularity of young Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav who seems to have cut across caste and communities.

The vote that had been exploring the Mayawati option very seriously till about three months ago, has shifted almost en bloc. In the final analysis, as the campaign revs up, the Muslims might in the usual tactical voting opt for the Bahujan Samaj party in pockets where the SP-Congress alliance has fielded ‘weak’ candidates but at the moment it is Akhilesh Yadav all the way.

More so, as in this support the Muslims find themselves in a majority that gives them some level of comfort as well. They can speak their mind now that the Samajwadi party is being seen as more legitimate by other communities with Akhilesh Yadav managing to break the polarising impact of elections. At least at this point in time.

This enthusiasm is causing concern to the BSP, although it is still optimistic that ‘Behenji’s” strategy of fielding at least 100 Muslim candidates will work in western UP. Mayawati’s party is the only one, besides the Bharatiya Janata Party, that has been campaigning on the ground. It released its list early on----unlike the SP and the Congress that have spent valuable days sparring---and the candidates are in the field. Her hard support, the Jatavs, are unshakeable this time around and there is sufficient indication that the BSP leader has managed to consolidate her Dalit base.

The erosion in favour of the BJP in the general elections in 2014 had cost Mayawati, but this time she has managed to consolidate this formidable votebank behind her. Dalits in, for instance BJP leader Sangeet Som’s constituency, admitted that they had voted for him in the general elections but “no more.” A wizened old villager said, “we wanted to teach Mayawati a lesson, we have and now we can bring her back in.” He admitted that he had not voted for her like many others of his community but this time his support had him insisting that there was “no doubt” that she would form the government in the state. What about the BJP? “All promises and lies, they have done nothing for us,” he said. And this in the middle of Som’s constituency, a BJP MLA against whom there are several cases for inciting communal violence.

The Muslim voters in the western part of UP had till a few days ago, had been looking very seriously at the BSP. The warring within the Samajwadi party, between father and son, had contributed to this as had Mayawati’s concerted campaign for this vote. The Dalit-Muslim combination was seen as a winning vote, with both the communities at the bottom rung of the development ladder, looking at each other as the sustenance they needed to move towards the BSP. Dalits in particular kept insisting that the Muslims were also voting for the BSP, and that it was going to win the forthcoming polls.

The change in Muslim mood towards the CM has been recent. Several Muslims spoken to in Meerut, Modinangar and adjoining constituences admitted that they had indeed been actively considering the BSP but that Akhilesh Yadav has now emerged as a formidable contender by assuming charge of the Samajwadi party. The sidelining of Mulayam Singh Yadav has breathed new life into the party on the ground, with Akhilesh Yadav seen as less divisive, honest and pro-development and thereby attracting votes across caste lines.

A hard BJP supporter having a paan perhaps is a prototype of the voter in the region these days. He spoke at some length about voting for the BJP and insisted that demonetisation would work “in the long run.” And then said that even though Akhilesh was like “hot cakes” (yes, he used this phrase) people would soon realise that he was an illusion. He was perhaps the most optimistic of the BJP voters spoken to, as this vote has suddenly gone quiet, visibly sullen, with none of the full throated assertions that had been heard in 2014. The shopkeepers sitting without customers had nothing to say. Not willing to criticise their party, they just kept quiet with a “let us see” or a “we do not know.”

Asked about Akhilesh Yadav, most kept quiet but one selling hosiery said that the CM was very popular. He said he had voted for the BJP last time, but kept quiet when asked if he would again, pointing out that there was a difference between state and central elections. A man standing in his shop said, “well he has done a lot here, you can see for yourself the roads and the highway. He is a good boy.”

Another BJP shopkeeper, equally reluctant to speak, admitted after some prodding that the party was not getting the same support. He sought solace in the fact that “when the Muslims come out in the CM’s support, the other communities will polarise behind the BJP.” You think so? “This has happened 90 per cent of the time so it might very well happen again,” he said. But his tone lacked confidence. The assertion and aggressiveness associated with the BJP voter, and very much evident in the general elections, has dissolved into sullen silence as they wait for the party to revive against the drastic impact of demonetisation, and the surging popularity of Akhilesh Yadav.