PRAYAGRAJ: As the Uttar Pradesh poll journey chugs along eastward, some catchwords among the voters are a constant: 'suraksha' (security), 'sukoon' (peace) and 'muft anaaj' (free grains).
And then there is counter talk of 'berozgari' (unemployment) and 'bhedbhaav' (discrimination) even in action against goons. In Prayagraj East, Anil Sonkar, who is 50 and drives an e-rickshaw, bares a conflict that mirrors the hearts of a sizeable section of voters.
"I thought my son could get a job and do better than me. A graduate he may be but he says decent jobs are difficult to find," he says reflectively.
He then points to the half-razed office of jailed gangster Atique Ahmed, a multi-term former MLA and also an ex-MP, and says, "Yogi (Adityanath) has made things safe. I can at least ply my rickshaw without facing any goon." For the first time in over three decades, neither Ahmed nor any of his family members are contesting elections this time.
Not very far off is Binod Kumar Kesarwani, a voter in Prayagraj North, selling clothes by the roadside and lamenting that business has been down for quite some time.
But he is surer of his political affiliation. "Will Samajwadi Party improve the economy? There is sukoon now. Bhajpa (BJP) should get one more chance," he says.
Spearheaded by its president Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party has been building its campaign against the BJP over issues like unemployment, stray cattle menace in rural areas and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's alleged high handedness and has tried to stitch together a caste coalition by giving representation to various communities to take on the ruling party.
Many of the issues have found a certain resonance with different sections of society outside its core support of Muslims and Yadavs but the BJP's narrative centred around development, law and order and welfareism hued with its consistent messaging of 'rashtravaad' (nationalism) and Hindutva enjoy an appeal that also travels beyond caste divide.
Who else has worked for 'sanatan dharm', ask some voters? However, opposition parties have been seeking to corner the ruling party by reaching out to different communities through representation and raising bread and butter issues.
District Samajwadi Party president Yogesh Chandra Yadav notes that in the total 12 assembly seats in Prayagraj his party has fielded members from Brahmin, Thakur, Kurmi, Bind and SC communities besides two Yadavs and Muslims each as he highlights its efforts to reach out to different sections of society.
He also refers to the perceived disaffection in a section of Brahmins in Poorvanchal against Adityanath to claim that his party will also benefit from it.
"As a person whose stomach is full is not excited by even best of foods, our voters were slothful in 2017. They are hungry now," he says, sounding confident of his party's prospect.
While BJP leaders routinely highlight the crackdown on criminals by the government led by Adityanath, whose tough image has its share of admirers, their claims do not go entirely uncontested.
A couple of government employees, who do not wish to be named, note that a video recently emerged of Dhananjay Singh, a former MP from Jaunpur and a wanted criminal in police records, playing cricket and name quite a few others who continue to be roaming free.
BJP MLA from Meja, an assembly constituency in Prayagraj, Neelam Karwaria is wife of former MLA Udaybhan Karwaria, who is serving a sentence for the murder of an SP leader, they add. "A government should see all criminals with one eye. This government does not," one adds.
Local BJP leaders insist that the government has not given protection to criminals of any hue, and that is why, they add, the law and order have emerged as a strong suit of the party.
Top BJP leaders, right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downward, have made it a point to highlight the SP's alleged links with those having criminal backgrounds when it was in power to corner the party over its law and order plank.
Yogesh Chandra Yadav, who lost his father to Covid-19 last year, is also hopeful that people will punish the BJP for their suffering. Many voters, though, seemed to have moved on.
"That was a natural disaster," Devraj Pasi, a labourer, says and then offers a word of thanks to Modi. "He ensured that nobody died of hunger. Can anyone ignore this," Pasi says.
However, Ramesh Kanojia, sitting next to him at a tea stall, says, "Free ration will stop soon. We want to earn to get our food. Akhilesh Yadav should be considered too." BJP supporters also count better power supply and building of roads as among the positives for the party.
The third angle of the UP polls is Mayawati-led BSP, whose party's vote share at over 22 per cent was higher than the SP's over 21 per cent.
With the buzz about the party missing in the streets, many experts believe that the SP has pushed it behind to emerge as the main challenger to the BJP.
The BSP is banking on its ploy of giving a large number of seats to different communities outside its base of a section of Dalits to emerge stronger.
With Prayagraj and the surrounding region going to the polls on Sunday in the fifth of the seven-phase assembly polls in the state and the fourth phase set for February 24, a lot is at stake for the parties as the elections enter the second and final half.