Who will win Uttar Padesh? Is the Modi magic working again, that too in an Assembly election, despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not announcing a face who could lead the party if it were to come to power? Will Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) see a complete wipeout? Has Akhilesh Yadav's 'Kaam Bolta Hai' slogan failed to resonate among the voters?
A day after polling ended for the 403 seats in the seven-phase UP elections, the exit poll results paint a very confusing picture, although there seems to be a consensus that the BJP may emerge as the single largest party.
The India News-MRC poll, the ABP News-Lokniti Survey and the India TV-CVoter surveys seem to indicate a hung Assembly.
On the other hand, the India Today-My Axis poll, the Times Now-VMR poll and the News24-Today's Chanakya surveys suggest that the BJP will get a majority on its own. While Today's Chanakya has predicted a 285-seat landslide in favour of the saffron party, the India Today-My Axis polls puts the figure between 251-279. The Times Now-VMR survey gives the BJP a much smaller figure, 190-210, with the number of MLAs required for government formation being 202.
The average of all these exit polls puts the BJP's expected tally at 211 seats.
On the other hand, the BSP, a formidable presence in the state's politics for nearly 25 years, may not even touch the 100 mark. Mayawati lost power in the state in 2012, and in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP failed to win a single seat. If the exit poll predictions do come true in the poll results on Saturday, 11 March, Mayawati may have a tough time keeping her flock of supporters together for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
What the different polls say
India Today-My Axis
BJP+ 285 ± 18
SP-Congress 88 ± 15
BSP 27 ± 12
Others 3 ± 2
Why the numbers vary so wildly
These polls are based on a sample size of just a few thousand in a state of more than 20 crore people. Exit polls have often been dead wrong in the past, like in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly polls in 2015, where most of them failed to gauge the mood in favour of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Grand Alliance and the Aam Aadmi Party respectively.
Importance of winning UP for BJP
The BJP needs to win UP. Of course, there are symbolic reasons, since it is the largest state in the country in terms of political numbers, and has been out of the party's reach since the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. But in addition to that, it also needs to shore up its numbers in the Rajya Sabha.
The exit poll numbers show a dip in performance from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when it swept UP. The BJP and its allies, the NDA, cornered 73 of the state's 80 seats, and actually won 317 of the state's Assembly segments.
The BJP seems to be losing support amongst communities that went out and voted for Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It was visible on the ground in western UP, which went to the polls in the first phase, where a large section of the Jats who had sunk Ajit Singh's RLD in the last elections, seemed to be in a decisive mode to come back to that party, owing to being 'shortchanged' by the BJP.
A section of the voters, especially among the BJP's core votebase of traders and businessmen, were also unhappy with demonetisation.
The saffron party has hinged its hopes on a rainbow coalition of non-Yadav OBCs, upper-caste voters and non-Jatav Dalit communities. Yet again, it has not showm any interest in the Muslim vote, which was visible in the way it did not field even a single Muslim candidate in a state where they account for almost 20% of the population.
Then came the way the BJP went after the SP-Congress alliance, accusing it of appeasing specific communities. There were clear hints towards Muslims, like the 'shamshan-qabristan' remark by Prime Minister Modi in Fatehpur.
It was clear that the BJP was not too confident of its performance in the first five phases, and was aiming for a kill in the remaining two. This was evident in how the entire cabinet and even the Prime Minister himself spent time in Varanasi and adjoining districts that went to the polls in the sixth and seventh phases.
The PM, in fact, put up a courageous one-man show on the last three days of campaigning, when he went to temples, did road shows and met locals in Varanasi, also his Parliamentary constituency, despite barbs from the Opposition on how these were 'desperate attempts'.
The Muslim factor
The SP-Congress alliance, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the infighting within the party and the way Akhilesh Yadav managed to elbow out his father Mulayam Singh Yadav and uncle Shivpal may have negated some of the anti-incumbency sentiment against his government.
The alliance with the Congress had sent a clear message to the Muslim voters – that this is the formation which could challenge the BJP. The alliance had been trying to steal Mayawati's thunder by repeatedly saying how she could align with the BJP, as she has in the past.
The BSP supremo had to make repeated statements on how she was not looking at a post-poll alliance. A section of the Muslim voters going in BSP's favour, coupled with her core support base in Dalit communities, some of which she lost in 2014, could give her a clear edge.
The outcome of the polls will, thus, depend on how the Muslims have voted. Have they decisively chosen the alliance or gone for the BSP?
The BSP had tried to be very aggressive in its Muslim outreach by fielding more than 100 candidates, including the Ansari brothers, which dented Mayawati's image of a no-nonsense politician when it came to criminals.
The SP's old Yadav-Muslim formula, strategists say, could easily give the alliance a lead on as many as 100 seats. They claim that the alliance has been the choice of a record number of Muslim voters.
UP may see interesting political realignments if the verdict on 11 March indeed throws up a hung Assembly. A Bihar-style Mahagathbandhan could be formed to thwart the BJP from coming to power, or to ensure that the parties do not have to go in the election mode again soon.
That would hinge on how the leadership question is settled, for Mayawati is known for her strong dislike for alliances. In the past, whenever she has chosen to form a coalition government, she has pulled the rug midway, like she did with the BJP twice, and with Mulayam Singh in 1995, after which SP goons tried to attack her at a VVIP guest house in Lucknow.
She may not have forgiven Mulayam Singh, but she has a better relationship with son Akhilesh, insiders say.
And when it comes to political survival and keeping the BJP at bay in case of a hung Assembly, it could be the way the cookie crumbles in UP.