Voting is over for 58 out of 403 assembly seats in the first phase of elections in western Uttar Pradesh (UP).

The heavens were merciful. After a bitter cold and foggy start, the clouds parted later in the day last Thursday to allow many more voters to give their verdict in what seems like a two cornered contest between the ruling BJP and the SP-RLD alliance. In the second phase, votes will be cast for 78 more seats to total 136 seats that representatives from western UP occupy in the state assembly.

The preference of a first time voter was for a contestant who will provide employment. The main concern of an elderly voter was for security and for controlling the escalating cost of essential commodities. The farmer is fed up with hordes of roaming cattle that ruin crops, and the skyrocketing price of fertiliser and electricity.

Dalit voters worry about the future of the reservation policy, and unemployment. For Muslim voters unemployment is an issue along with rising communalism and security.

This phase of the election does not seem like a cake walk for any one political party. Most voters are desperate to get on in life, and the need of their hour is the eternal roti, kapda aur makan, and peaceful co-existence.

People in Kairana too voted on February 10. Today many are upset that politicians have given a bad name to their hometown. As a result families hesitate to send daughters as a bride to Kairana. Today the image of the industrial town populated largely by farmers is worse than the wild west. It is that of an unsafe land of gangsters and robbers. The people of Kairana are proud of their home town and resent the negative image slapped on the place by politicians. Since 2014, Kairana has been in the news for the wrong reasons.

Thanks to the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) bhaichara zindabad (long live brotherhood) initiative, the different communities in this part of the state are united today. RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary has been working tirelessly to spread good cheer between Jats, Muslims and Dalits.

Unity, says Chaudhary is a priority with him.

The bhaichara zindabad was flagged off last year from Muzaffarnagar where riots between Jats and Muslims in 2013 had left 62 dead, 93 injured and over 40,000 Muslims homeless. The ugly incident had soiled the atmosphere for residents of the entire region, and Chaudhary lost general elections in 2014 and in 2019. This election is an opportunity for Chaudhary to win back the goodwill, and the votes of the people of western UP.

Muslims number over 25 percent of the population in western UP, Dalits 20 percent and together with Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, Chaudhary has brought the Jats, Muslims, Dalits and Yadavs under one friendly roof. The hope is to harvest votes of this group that together add up to nearly 55 percent of the total population of the state.

However the electoral benefits of this unity will only be known once the results are declared on March 10.

Unemployment has peaked to a dangerously high level. The government has not recruited people for jobs for several years. All protests by the jobless have been suppressed by the police. Countless small shops have closed down. Many vegetable vendors and roadside food stall owners have lost their livelihood. The list of citizens without a regular income is getting longer.

The youth is a constituency of its own that cuts across party, caste and religious lines. Many fall in the category of undecided voters who are key in any election. Who will they vote for this time, is the question.

Not for Mayawati, says a 21 year old Lucknow University student.

Where is Mayawati? What has happened to her magic?

This is the first time that Mayawati may not get a single vote from a Muslim despite the fact that she has given the maximum number of seats to Muslim contestants, as the minorities in UP do not necessarily vote for Muslim candidates.

Her image has paled and her reach reduced to a fraction of even the Dalit votes. She has been barely seen and reports suggest that the normally loyal Jatav vote is also showing signs of unease,with the urban young vote moving away from the Bahujan Samaj party for the first time.

Meanwhile the BJP is depending on beneficiaries to vote for the party. This is a politically passive class of two crore labharathis or beneficiaries of government policies like the Ujjwala, Jan Dhan Yojna and Ayushman Bharat. The beneficiaries cut across caste and religion and include farmers and women. The party has a list and its volunteers have been visiting beneficiaries door to door reminding them of what they have received so far and promising them more gifts in the future.

Beneficiaries have received free rations and money in their bank account and are promised housing and pension in the future. Of course many are happy with this, but there are those who would rather have a sustainable income through employment. More so as the rumour mill suggests that the flow of goodies will stop with the elections.

She came, she saw, and she conquered. The visit of Mamata Banerjee to Lucknow warmed hearts in the thick and thin of an overcast winter day. The joint press conference she held with SP chief Akhilesh Yadav was watched live by thousands of people.

Her message was darna nahin ladna hai (do not fear but fight).

Her party TMC has no base in UP but she came to support the SP-RLD alliance. Mamata wants Akhilesh Yadav to win in UP, and promises a victory in 2024 in Delhi.

Aap UP meiin haraiye hum desh meiin haratey haiin, she said.

She said she would come again to Varanasi before the elections, and made her support for Akhilesh Yadav clear in what many see as the beginning of a new national coalition.

AIMIM chief, and Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi has come all the way from Hyderabad to contest elections in UP. On a recent trip back to Delhi his vehicle was fired upon near a toll plaza around Hapur. He was unhurt and was immediately offered Z security which he refused to take.

Mamata Banerjee was dismissive when asked about him at her Lucknow press conference. Why do you ask me questions about such people, she told the reporter adding an aside about him and the BJP.