Of all that has been said about Lucknow, this line has always been a puzzle: If Uttar Pradesh is the country’s pivot to power in Delhi, then this former seat of Awadhi nawabs is the cushion for a soft landing. It makes this charming old constituency sound like a hedge against the risk of losses, if not a consolation prize in a game of pass-the-parcel.

Famous for sending former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Parliament, Lucknow is still considered a “safe seat" of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which turned it over five years ago to home minister Rajnath Singh, who won it by scoring over half a million votes—more than rival candidates from the Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) combined. Singh now seems sold on a national security bounce to see off his contenders. Few would give either Acharya Pramod Krishnam of the Congress or Poonam Sinha of the SP half a chance of pulling off an upset this year.

In an election rally here on Sunday, a week before ballot booths were to be thrown open on 6 May, Singh’s gravelly voice was in rant mode against terror in general and Kashmir’s “special" status in particular. The final authority on all matters of public safety, though, it had to be assumed, would rest with the object of people’s awe across town: Narendra Modi. Indeed, few had anything but loud praise for the Prime Minister as India’s defender-in-chief.

Whether the BJP’s micro-strategist Amit Shah actually needed to waste any time working out the math of identities and affiliations was unclear. Why would the party even bother putting the Amit Shah playbook into play here? The opposition had a two-way split anyway. In 2017, the BJP had managed to cleave Yadavs apart from worse-off other backward classes (OBCs) in the SP’s vote base, Jatavs apart from other Scheduled Castes (SCs) in the BSP’s, and Sunnis apart from Shias (who Vajpayee wooed) among Muslims. And if this wasn’t enough, the BJP had other aspects of its majoritarian brand of nationalism to rely on. Easy going, then.

It’s Rajnath Singh versus Poonam Sinha in Lucknow
It’s Rajnath Singh versus Poonam Sinha in Lucknow

Yet, it’s hard to escape the odd whisper in favour of the SP-BSP alliance forged last year with the explicit aim of ending the BJP’s dominance of Uttar Pradesh. Were a large number of BJP seats at threat? Speaking to Mint, Rajiva Sharan, a professor of political science at the University of Lucknow, declared himself “very sceptical" about that. “My view is that SP’s Akhilesh (Yadav) and BSP’s Mayawati coming together is fine," he said, “but if they think their voters will vote as they instruct them (for each other’s candidates), I don’t think it’s going to work out the way they expect."

An election or two ago, it may have happened, he added, but vote transfers couldn’t be counted upon any longer because voters had developed a political awareness of their own; SP-aligned Yadavs, for example, would likely be reluctant to vote for the BSP, while BSP-loyal SCs often saw OBCs as their exploiters. “By the arithmetic, it may look like a hands-down win for the alliance in Uttar Pradesh, but it’s not going to be easy. Till yesterday, these voters were fed on ‘our interests are inimical to each other’s’," added Sharan, offering a recap of the regime’s work on roads, rural electrification, gas stoves, soil cards, the Kumbh, and so on.

So far, so conventional. That opinion in Lucknow could vary widely under well-woven views, began to come across only in relatively relaxed settings.

Political pillow talk

It was trisyllabic, the city’s typical response to who would win this year’s elections: “BJP". Rishabh Kumar, 21, was sure of it. “Yeh toh pucca hai (it’s a certainty)," he affirmed after recovering from what looked like alarm on being asked such a direct question aboard Lucknow’s spiffy Metro. Of course, he’d vote for the BJP. For its “policies", he clarified.

Ah. And what did Kumar make of the SP-BSP alliance? There’s too much “jaativaad" around, he sighed, “casteism"; and then went on to credit former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav with the Metro and several other public projects, most of which had been halted, he noted angrily, pointing to a river outside the window that should’ve got cleaned up by now. His litany might have carried on had my Vishwavidyalaya stop not arrived. The campus would surely have random folk to chat up.

Acharya Pramod Krishnam
Acharya Pramod Krishnam

A middle-ager at a snacks counter near one of the University’s gates was in favour of badlaav (change), a tack he seemed to reverse as soon as his name was asked. “Our vote is with Rajnathji," is all Ram Sahay would say thereafter.

Especially guarded in betraying any trace of discontent was Jagdamba Pal, 51, a grade IV employee sprawled on a cricket field. He was on a break from work and clear that votes had to be cast in secrecy. Who ruled the country made no difference to his life, he said, but Modi had to be its leader. Once satisfied with my not being a spy for some khufiya (secret) agency, though, he had a few questions to raise. Why, for example, had campus polls not been held for so long? Was the voice of India’s youth being heard?

As if to compensate, a double room at Subhas Chandra Bose Hostel was soon to work up a lively clamour of millennial voices. Choices would go by the credentials of candidates, said Kuldeep Shukla, 21. His forecast? The “Modi wave" of 2014 was in decline and the anti-BJP alliance would get a larger number of seats in the state. “See, Modi did a lot," chimed in Manish Pathak, 22, “but other MPs (members of Parliament) and MLAs (members of legislative assembly) have let the party down." Cited in support of this point were allegations of money being made by many of them on degree colleges and “duniya bhar ka vyaapaar (a lot of business)", all sorts of business.

By now, word had spread down the corridor for other students to join in. For Manmohan Mishra, 21, the media was to blame for the sordid state of affairs: It was busy asking for answers on mango preferences instead of the Unnao rape case and other scandals. “Doesn’t the media know how to do an interview?" he demanded. So volubly had he leapt into the room that an eruption of assorted protests—against some news channel or the other daily—were quelled for my benefit. This was achieved by a BJP front-page ad in a Hindi newspaper, which was thrust under my nose for me to answer which of its claims had been verified by anyone. Asking them to look up Plain Facts on livemint.com seemed to buy only momentary peace.

Which party, then, would they pick as first-time voters in the ongoing general elections? It took only a slight squabble for a disyllabic consensus to emerge (or be articulated): “NOTA". If “None of the Above" were to turn out the top choice of the electorate, they held, then a repoll ought to be ordered. “It’s the only way to keep bad candidates out," said one. “The corrupt," specified another.

Would all the other voters out there agree? A mix of doubt and gloom appeared to hush the hostel room for a moment before Prashant Dixit, 23, ventured his analysis of Indian democracy’s principal problem: “andh-bhakti (blind devotion) and polarization". He was particularly put off by a troll attack he’d suffered the other day for sharing a video clip of Ravish Kumar on social media. “Why do politicians only address sensitive issues? What about jobs? That’s No. 1 as a common issue. Health? Infrastructure? Education?" It served as a cue for others to speak up. “Even a peon’s job takes a bribe." “Recruitment exam papers always get leaked." “In the name of jobs also, there is now divisive talk."

“The youth are not being given a chance," said Sachin Kumar Yadav, 20, who’d been content to listen all this while. “Yes, why is that?" added Dixit, “People will want an answer."

The curse of caste politics didn’t take long to rear itself. “So long as the whole system is not reformed, this will go on," said Shukla, “Politicians won’t reform their ways, there’ll still be buying tickets to contest elections." There was no getting away from the likes of Pragya Thakur and Azam Khan, said someone, at which reminders were exchanged of their ugly words. The courts, social media, Election Commission of India (ECI) and others were all complicit in this mahaul, this environment, said someone else, even as disgust was aired at lynch mobs, “anti-national" labels and the national media—this time round, for not asking why Pulwama’s martyrs were denied an airlift. Bhakts, the gathering felt, were a creation of the media.

On defence, though, it was quickly pointed out, the Prime Minister had done good work. Whether this meant Modi would get another term in office was met with many a nod of agreement. As Pathak summed it up, “There is no vikalp (alternative)."

The sense that the 17th Lok Sabha was already in the BJP’s bag seemed to prevail even more heavily in Old Lucknow. At the Bara Imambara, this was what Aysha Anam, 26, made of the scenario: “The BJP is already in power, and if you look at the way it’s using this power with the EC and media, it’s not going to give up the throne."

Adnan Siddiqui, 30, had a few words to put in. “Institutions have been hijacked," as he saw it. “Why can’t we switch back to paper ballots?" Anam wanted to know. “In a democracy, we don’t choose a leader and then vote," she said, “It’s not just Rahul Gandhi in the Congress, there are many leaders. They’ve tarnished his image, but Priyanka’s, they can’t."

Modi in the Old City

Digging into a plateful of Tunday Kebabs later that evening at the celebrated Chowk outlet of this delicacy, Ali, 25, had two words to offer in his appraisal of Modi’s record: “Nothing good." Why? “Fake news, these EVM (electronic voting machine) things, lynchings…" he replied, pausing to warn me gently not to get him started. “Saw him on TV with Akshay Kumar?" he asked me, “‘I’m this, I’m that…’ Modi loves Modi." That the object of this televised lovefest was poised for victory, however, was not in dispute to his mind. “Modi will be back."

That refrain had chased me down the alley, almost like a discreet advisory to quit asking silly questions. “It’s like this," an amused observer would later quip, “This seat is reserved."

My app-hailed cabbie of the day, in contrast, had veered around to the view that Lucknow was up for grabs. Sinha could swing some upper-crust voters away from the BJP, he’d guessed, while Krishnam had earned himself his own appeal spanning the religious divide; and last but not least, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s “Bajrang Bali versus Ali" could yet reverse a sectarian wedge driven by the party. What Vajpayee had once gained, Yogi’s blow of the conch would lose.

How sizeable a swing that might be seemed like a touchy topic in the old city, but Ali indulged me all the same. A few Maulanas making pro-BJP or pro-Mandir noises, only evoked shrugs among youngsters like him and his buddy, he said. “I’m Sunni and he’s Shia," he added, referring to his co-diner, and he wouldn’t listen to Maulanas, would he? “Only if they make sense," replied Ali’s friend, duly startled. It was best, the table figured, to leave it at that.

Every city may have its own andaaz, a distinct manner of getting views across, but Lucknow appeared to have mastered the art of doing so in riddles. It’s done for a variety of purposes. To cushion a blow, perhaps, or not let on too much, especially not to a tactless out-of-towner.

The device of taqiya, after all, has a history going back centuries in these parts, the tactical adoption of a stance aligned with the most acceptable view. That it would still be in practice here was no surprise once the dots began to reveal a pattern. How widely it was employed across the city by people of all faiths alike, however, left me agape.

But then, whichever way Uttar Pradesh tilts the country this summer, almost everybody could say they told me so. On a tiny sample of sentiment in the state’s capital, my hunch was that Amit Shah’s playbook wouldn’t pull his party through.