Najib, with his popcorn cart, has increased the frequency with which he visits the primary school 'chabootra'
(a round, cemented platform) in Mau village each day. The village elders and men would gather only once each day before members of the Samajwadi Party's first family went to war against each other. Now, debates erupt like corn in his hot pan more often - depending on the multiple news breaks TV channels bring on the developments. Wade into any debate - among those who have been loyal Mulayam Singh Yadav voters - the narrative has worries echoing with voices for a generational change.
Abdul Sattar recalls voting in at least 10 assembly polls. For the last six polls, he has not looked at candidates or symbols. His vote had one name on it - Mulayam Singh Yadav. But today is different. The village elder, known for his instant poetry, declares, "Akhilesh's mind is fresh. He has the wealth and goodwill his father Mulayam has built. The father must make way for him."
Eighty per cent of residents of Mau are Muslims. Mohammed Rafiq runs a grocery store and has made up his mind. "We will vote for Akhilesh," he said. When I asked him, "So you will abandon Mulayam Yadav if he puts up a candidate against Akhilesh man in the coming election?" Pat came the reply, "Everyone can see who is new and has a future. He (Akhilesh) has done lot of work. We didn't have a burial ground. There used to be constant friction with the Hindus. He gave us one and a cremation ground to the Hindus."
Mirza Ali, a onetime high court employee who was sitting with a pensive look all this while, suddenly spoke up, "The war in the family will help the BJP as the Muslim vote will split. Some will go to Mayawati some to Akhilesh, Mulayam and Congress."
This is no ordinary worry. Right since the Ram Mandir movement, Muslims have voted with one eye on the candidate's capability to defeat the BJP - more often for the Samajwadi Party. The Samajwadi Party parivar
war has ended the ease of doing electoral business for Muslims. Their comfort zone is threatened.
The BSP is there as an option but the rise of Modi and BJP as the third force has raised the spectre of a hung verdict. Imtiaz Ali, a spare parts dealer, says, "We knew Mulayam will not tie up with BJP ever so could vote for him with eyes closed. To stop Kar Sevaks, he ordered firing. But Mayawati has gone with the BJP when she was short of majority more than once. That's why the Muslims here will pick Akhilesh as he, apart from his development agenda, is now a bigger force than Mulayam."
Rehmat wipes his hands on a rag as he serves fresh pakoras
to the group and pulling at his flowing white beard. Says thoughtfully, "Mulayam was mulla
Mulayam for us. He had built trust in our hearts brick by brick. We can only hope that the son and father get back together."
I sat with another group of men from the village in the local market for an hour. The tweak in voter strategy subtle, and in a way, brave. In a social group that has clung to what is old and tradition, it's surprising to see strategy being reworked within a few months of SP parivar
war. The minority's voters - many of them illiterate - aren't abandoning the SP or Mulayam but picking Akhilesh as a new leader, inheritor of Mulayam's legacy. Fayaz Bukhari says, "Mulayam Yadav still commands respect. But voters have decided to invest their future in Akhilesh."
Five kilometres away, another Mulayam bastion battles similar dilemma. Eighty per cent of Ranikheda village residents are Yadavs. Mulayam long ago had created seeds of a social coalition between Muslims and Yadavs - who today are loyal to SP but prefer the son. Village pradhan Luvkush Yadav is just 31 and was handpicked by Akhilesh Yadav. With two plus-size smartphones in his hand, he takes us to the fields where most men are busy with their wheat and mustard crops.
Amar Singh finishes spraying pesticide and sits on a cot to find why we were in Ranikheda. Asked about the Akhilesh-Mulayam tussle, he says, "It's high time Mulayam sits at home. If he didn't want to hand over the party to Akhilesh, what was the need to make Akhilesh the Chief Minister in 2012? Wasn't the move aimed at creating a leader for 2017 to replace him?"
Brahmins in most parts of UP, post 1990 Mandalisation of politics, have decided to stay on the other page with the Yadavs who got 27 per cent reservation in jobs and used their larger numbers to dictate politics in states like UP and Bihar.
But in nearby Sisendi village, Akhilesh represents a new wave. Over the last five years, Akhilesh Yadav as Chief Minister has distributed 15 lakh HP laptops. Baraati Mishra had drifted away from BJP in 2007 to vote for Mayawati's Brahmin-Dalit rainbow coalition. In 2012 and 2014, he was back with BJP. But this time, he says, "My daughter is in third year of college and has a laptop. The first laptop came to our village because Akhilesh gave them. I will pick Akhilesh next time."
The laptop element repeats as one moves from one village to another. Sushila Yadav of Ranikheda is pursuing a BA degree. She earned a laptop when she passed her "inter" or Class 12 exam. She knows more details of the parivar
war than many. She boots up her laptop and the screen lights up with pictures of Mulayam and Akhilesh. "I watch news on my laptop. I have seen Akhilesh say that Amar Singh is fuelling the fires. I heard Shivpal Yadav murmur in his father's ear to announce the CM's expulsion even when the letter wasn't signed. But for all Yadav youths Akhilesh is the leader," she says.
Sitting beside, her mother Kamini proudly says, "My daughter is an expert at the computer. I only hope the war between father and son ends. In fact I am sure the fight will end. After all they are father and son."
Outside at the local floor mill, a group of men stands. They had voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls. But demonetisation and lack of tangible benefits from centre is turning out to be a deal-breaker. They have returned to the SP fold. It's visible that in the coming assembly polls Mulayam Yadav's 'MY molecule' may split and go different ways. The Muslims have BSP to turn to when SP is down but the Yadavs don't have that option. The socially aggressive Yadavs, for backing Mulayam, have been considered as "antagonistic" by Mayawati government in the past.
Raghvendra Yadav who has just cleared the entrance for a government job says, "The maximum cases registered under Dalit act are against Yadavs during Mayawati rule. When it comes to assembly polls, Yadavs have to go with SP. Mulayam Yadav was the founder but for young voters, the choice has changed."
Back in Lucknow, outside Mulayam Yadav's home where he is meeting Amar Singh, his confidante and man-Akhilesh-wants-out, I wonder. In his political career spanning over five decades, wrestler-turned Mulayam Singh could punch high and beat rivals heavier than him because of two qualities: timing and judgment of a situation. Away from Lucknow, in rural UP, the narrative makes one wonder if he has gone wrong this time to prove that good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement.(Rahul Shrivastava is Senior Editor, Political Affairs NDTV 24x7)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.