It is early morning and the Kachawa road vegetable mandi on the Varanasi-Allahabad road is crowded. Sacks of potatoes and peas are thrown into mini-trucks, as they speed away to sell the produce in towns and villages in the vicinity.
To woo this market of truck drivers and farmers, Bijendra Nath and Ashish Kumar have set up roadside stalls to sell clothes. I ask them about the impact of demonetisation. “Acha hua (it was good),” says Kumar. “The wealth of the rich was confiscated. Raees bhi gareeb ban gaya (the rich also became poor).” Nath nodded.
Not everyone agreed. Umashankar, standing at the mandi, told Kumar, “Tell me, which rich man became poor? Modiji ne tu pet pe laat maar diya, (Modi has hit us economically).” He said he was a labourer working in construction. “There is no money, so there is no building work, and so there is no majdoori — wages — for us. I sometimes even earned ₹ 500 a day but that’s gone now.”
Nath — the vendor — however did not let it pass. “You don’t earn because you don’t work hard. Think about the future and the nation also, everyone is saying it is good.” Umashankar gave it back and said, “I also watch the news. Nothing has changed.”
Exactly two months since PM Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise high value notes, HT travelled back to Purvanchal in UP — one of India’s poorest regions — to trace the public response to the decision.
In mid-November, there was euphoria and overwhelming support. Shopkeepers, farmers, women in bank queues had told us that this move will penalise the corrupt, will make India equal, and will generate direct benefits for the poor. Voices of criticism were muted and few.
As we drove across the same towns and villages, met many of the same people, the mood was far more mixed. The cash supply situation had got better. But the euphoria had dissipated. There was still support, there were many who claimed that it had punished the corrupt and ended terror.
Ashish Kumar and Bijendra Nath (in jackets) run roadside stalls and are fervent supporters of demonetisation. They feel it will make the rich poor. However, Umashankar, a daily wage labourer accuses Modi of taking away his livelihood. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)
But even advocates found it hard to enumerate more specific benefits of the move. And among the really poor, who have no fiscal cushion, there was visible unease. At the same time, while there were voices like that of Umashankar, there wasn’t outright hostility and anger.
All of this makes demonetisation the unknown variable, the X factor, of the 2017 elections. It could operate invisibly and shape voting. Or counter intuitive as it may sound, demonetisation — despite its disruptive implications — may not be a major factor, with voters continuing to cast their ballot on the basis of loyalties to one’s caste, party or leader.
In Mirzapur’s Jamui bazaar, Prem Raj Singh runs a medical store. In mid-November, he had excitedly told us how he thought the move would clean India.
Sitting in his shop, listening to Modi’s Lucknow speech on his mobile, Singh continued to support the decision, but in a far more measured tone.
“I had no problems. I work through cheques. My supplies came on time after I transferred amount.” Did his sales dip? “A little for the first few days, but it is now normal.” And what would be the impact of the move on elections? “People will move towards Modiji. He has done a good thing.”
As one drives towards Jaunpur and Azamgarh, on the outskirts of Varanasi, is the Danaganj market. The ATMs are still not fully functional, but the bank queues have reduced considerably.
Lallan, a shopkeeper, is ambivalent about the move and says it did not affect his sales much. Sitting with him is Rajendra Yadav, a farmer, who has stronger views. “We all suffered. But now it is time for the government to show us the benefits.” What was the benefit he was expecting? “We should get the black money that is now with RBI.”
They were both however skeptical of Modi’s cashless push. Lallan’s shop did not have a machine or e-wallet payment facility. Yadav said, “If I have to give ₹ 100 to someone, why should I do it over the mobile? Can’t I give someone cash? This card thing is only meant to benefit the capitalists.”
Lallan added that they will give Modi more time to deliver benefits, and then decide how to vote. “Voting is a 2 minute decision inside the booth. Let us see till the end of the month.”
How will such attitudes play out in the elections? Will Modi’s attempt to craft a corrupt rich versus poor narrative work? Will the adverse economic impact on the poor manifest itself on poll day?
The truth is that even politicians don’t quite know.
A BJP MLA from the region has two narratives on the issue. On the record, he mounts a strong defence of the visionary decision of Modi.
Off the record, he complains that the move eroded employment, will mark a return of ‘Inspector raj’, and has made the party defensive right before elections.
“We were on the offensive against SP. Suddenly we have to answer questions. My sense is we will witness a 5-10 percent drop in votes, but those voters will not go and support another candidate. They may just stay home,” says the MLA.
But he says it could have been worse, and the BJP has ‘more or less’ managed the issue because of a particular Indian ‘psychology’. “Imagine God gives two options — you will get 100 tolas of jewellery and your neighbour will get 200 tolas. Or you will lose one arm, and your neighbour will lose both arms. What will you choose? I am telling you, Indians will go for the second option.”
An SP activist and an aide of CM Akhilesh Yadav argued demonetisation has devastated the rural economy, and farmers have lost out. But he too felt this will not be the decisive issue in the election. “This election will turn on caste, leadership and development.”
An economically disruptive move like demonetisation will have political implications. But voting preferences are dictated by a complex set of factors. Irrespective of actual voter motivation, the result will be interpreted as either a popular endorsement or rejection of demonetisation. And in that lies the importance of UP 2017. On March 11, the silent UP voter will tell India what he wants.