LUCKNOW: In 2012 Assembly elections the new kid on the Uttar Pradesh block was Akhilesh Yadav who revived a fading Samajwadi party towards the end with his bicycle yatras. The party came to power and Mulayam Singh emerged as the real ruler, even though he put his greenhorn son in the Chief Ministers seat.

In 2014 general elections the new kid was Narendra Modi, who master oratory and big promises mesmerised the UP voter who returned the BJP to power with 72 Lok Sabha seats bringing at least 300 Assembly constituencies under its influence. Of course one was for teh Chief Minister, the other Prime Minister---a classification that matters to the voter.

In 2017 the new kid on the ground is strangely enough again Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and the SP-Congress alliance to a lesser extent. The young CM has managed to refresh his image, get rid of the five year baggage entirely by one, getting rid of his father Mulayam Singh who is now campaigning for his few ‘loyalists’ left in the party; and two, forging an alliance with the Congress that brings in a slightly new dimension into the fray.

Akhilesh Yadav has learnt with the speed of youth. He spent a year in developing the infrastructure of this woebegone state that has villagers in remote areas recognising, “han kaam to bahut kiya hai.” He has also taken over the social media--a field that the BJP had exploited almost entirely in the last polls---with a special team manning cyber space from Vikramaditya marg in Lucknow. This team is targeting the urban youth directly, just as the SP candidates are under instructions to work on the youth in the rural areas. Akhilesh Yadav speaks directly to the young people at his rallies, and even in local meetings for candidates the crowds are thick, and the youth on trees, rooftops visibly enthusiastic in their response.

The difference is that unlike the first two elections, this time it is difficult to guage whether the ‘new kid’ is going to win the elections. And this is not because the elections are complicated---in UP they always are---but because the voter has gone silent. He/she is not speaking. There is a wariness not noted before, and clearly the high stakes have created pressure not just on the political parties but also on the villagers who are very uncharacterestically watching their words, speaking in monosyllables, and yet seem to have made up their minds.

This is quite different from West UP where the voters were vocal before the first phase of the elections there, talking freely against demonetisation and the BJP, and insisting that they would not vote for the party again. Whether this happened or not is anyone’s guess but the voters were certainly not silent.

It is a fact that in the east and central UP belt as well there is deep unhappiness over demonetisation, and that is one of the primary reasons why Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shifted almost entirely in the last phases of the campaign from his controversial decision to the usual Hindu-Muslim theme. In his recent speech at Fatehpur PM Modi he moved away from demonetisation and development to ‘Hindu Muslim’ politics and thus provided a clear indicator that the BJP has realised that the first two planks are not working in its favour. And that PM Modi has had to stir the communal cauldron following BJP president Amit Shah who was the first to make the change for the party in its campaign in this crucial state.

That he has done this when crucial districts of eastern UP remain to be polled, midway into the elections is significant. As it is a recognition of the fact that the development plank has been taken away by the UP chief minister who is contesting these elections with a clean slate. The past has remained with his father, and not been transferred to him with Akhilesh Yadav now moving to convince the voters that the next five years will be his, and theirs.

While UP is impossible to predict the following facts stand out through an intensive and extensive tour of the state:

1. The pro- vote is largely because of Akhilesh Yadav, with the alliance clearly being a piggy back ride for the Congress;

2. The CM has managed to cloak himself in the mantle of a sincere, honest pro-development chief minister. Everyone has a good word for him, even the BJP workers who say he is a good man;

3. The CM is attractive to the youth cutting across castes. This might not include sections of the upper caste but does extend into the OBC’s, sections of the Dalits, apart from the SP core votebank of Muslims and Yadavs who have consolidated behind the party;

It is also a fact that the alliance is now giving a fight in every constituency to its closest rivals, the BSP in some cases, the BJP in others. Whether it wins or not will depend on the complexities of the voting in specific constituencies of course, but the UP voter is talking about the alliance more than it is now about the other political parties. And it will also now depend on whether the voter in east UP is more communalised than she/he appears to be on a cursory visit.

It is also a fact that if the alliance is to get a majority it has to virtually sweep the state. And cut across its limited vote banks, dipping into the bags of all castes and communities just as PM Modi managed to do in the 2014 elections where he fired the youth with caches of promises. The promises of course have not been realised, and it is now the turn of the two ‘youth leaders’ Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi to make the promises and insist that these will be fulfilled. As Akhilesh Yadav said at a public meeting in Malihabad, this alliance is not of families as the opponents claim, “ it is an alliance of the youth, for the youth.”

The two, have established a good working relationship that locals describe as ‘good chemistry’! Both have made sure that the campaign is not marred by any hiccups, even in the ‘friendly contest’ seats. Asked whether he has a close personal relationship with Rahul Gandhi, the CM is cautious, saying time will tell.

Can the Alliance then get the support necessary to replace the BJP in the majority of constituencies in UP? The jury remains out on this one, even as the facts speak for themselves.