Anil Trivedi, tall, with an unkept grey beard, settles down over a cup of tea in my Indore hotel room, putting aside his AAP cap. His companion, Gaurav Chandak, a younger man, is an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and a committed social worker. He "had to vote" for the BJP in the December elections, he complains, because the Congress has not offered much of a contest in Indore in recent years.
Therefore when AAP erupted with the suddenness of revelation in Delhi, Gaurav began to inquire if there would be an AAP candidate from Indore for the parliamentary election.
A fortnight ago, friends led him to Anil Trivedi, the AAP candidate who was himself looking for help. Since then, Gaurav has been Anil's one man secretariat. The two have discovered that campaigning on two-wheelers is a huge convenience in a city which has 16 lakh cars in a population of 22 lakh. "Whenever we stop, a crowd gathers enabling us to address street corner meetings". He proposes to mobilize "a car or two" to be able to campaign in the 700 villages under the constituency.
The sitting BJP MP, Sumitra Mahajan, not accustomed to too much exertion in past elections, is suddenly having to contend with a different culture of electioneering. It would be risky to pick victors and vanquished, but the electorate in Indore are finding the intimacy of AAP's door-to-door canvassing persuasive.
From Patna, Lucknow or Indore, the overall picture also looks different. In the course of channel surfing, the avid election watcher does linger longer on the manufactured Modi show beamed from the principal English and Hindi channels. But these images are not as overpowering as they tend to be in New Delhi or Mumbai. Smaller cities are reliable listening posts for the rural hinterland where the influence of the trunk route media declines.
A conversation in the plush office of Indore's powerful Hindi daily is much more down-to-earth, based on real figures. There are a total of 200 seats in Andhra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Odissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Delhi, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Chandigarh and Pondicherry. In this substantial chunk of India there is, at present, not a single seat with the BJP. In a Lok Sabha of 543, the party has 343 from which to coax a majority for the NDA. This is a feasible proposition except that pocket calculators are out in every constituency where alternative coalitions are being dreamed up.
The party is certain to pick up a seat or two in Uttarakhand, Haryana but where else? Tamil Nadu?
In Bihar, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has a total of 66 seats out of a total of 126. It will probably add to its numbers here.
UP, Rajasthan and Punjab account for 118 seats of which the BJP has only 15 at present. Will it double these seats or treble them? This is precisely where the BJP could grow exponentially if its ambitious project of social engineering succeeds. This entails saffronization of the lower castes.
Will this project be to the liking of UP's Brahmins who have been wandering from camp to camp in search of patronage and stability ever since their secure edifice, the Congress, collapsed in the late 80s. They shifted to the BJP imagining it to be the new parking lot for the upper caste. But the BJP at this stage was adjusting to the post Mandal commission caste politics. Kalyan Singh, a Lodh, became chief minister, much to the Brahmin's chagrin. He has over the years adjusted even to Mayawati's blandishments.
This time, if a section of Brahmins stays with Mayawati, her chances will be considerably boosted. It is of vital importance to Modi that this support somehow becomes available to the BJP.
The Muslim vote in UP is drifting towards the BSP. But here too there is a complication. In every alternate seat one runs into the same unexpected campaigners, wearing an AAP cap and riding a two-wheeler. In a four-cornered contest, Muslims will vote in the following order of preference - AAP, BSP, Congress and Samajwadi Party. Never was the SP so much out of favour with Muslims in UP. They are punishing the SP for Muzaffarnagar just as they punished the Congress in Rajasthan for it callousness in Gopalgarh.
The BJP will have to fight tooth and nail to improve its tally of 32 seats from a total of 90 in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Assam. The Gandhi family will be in deeper trouble if Uma Bharti and Smriti Irani are fielded from Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively. Congress workers in both these constituencies wait anxiously for Priyanka who remains absent.
The greatest unpredictability imposed on these elections is by AAP which has changed the terms of the game but whose own score will remain a total mystery until the votes are counted on May 16.