LESS THAN A MONTH BEFORE THE 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the wedding of a top Uttar Pradesh bureaucrat’s daughter at the Taj Hotel in Lucknow presented senior journalists invited from Delhi with an opportunity to interact with the state’s leading bureaucrats—who are, in Chief Minister Mayawati’s reign, more important than politicians. For a select few celebrity editors, there was even a rare durbar with Mayawati herself, who carefully arrived after the governor had left, presented flowers to the newly married, and proceeded to a barricaded enclosure to meet India’s opinionmakers. I don’t know what the conversation was like, but I saw the journalists’ lips move more than hers.
After the meeting was over, I asked one celebrity TV anchor what he thought the election results were going to look like. He said the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was very strong, and predicted she could win 50 of the 80 seats the party was contesting. The Delhi media’s awe of Mayawati was at a historic peak; they had taken her prime ministerial ambitions seriously. I told this studio journalist that the buzz in Lucknow was that the Congress could spring a surprise. “No chance,” he said. “They don’t have any organisation. Azharuddin is my friend and he called me to say he needs my help. Even a celebrity like Azharuddin is going to lose!”
Mohammad Azharuddin, once a cricketer, won the Moradabad seat by 50,000 votes, and the Congress increased its vote share from 12.5 percent to 18.25 percent, more than doubling its seats from nine to 21. The BSP won only 20 seats, and appeared to have surrendered the gains it made in the 2007 state assembly elections, when it had won an outright majority with 206 out of 403 assembly seats. The predictions that preceded that election—even those backed by expensive surveys—had done an equally woeful job of projecting the outcome: at her first press conference after returning to the chief minister’s office that year, Mayawati noted that journalists had been complaining about her not giving interviews, and quipped that since they were making their own predictions she did not want to “disturb” them.