Feb 17: In November last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned the country by announcing that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were as good as garbage. Despite his insistence that the ban was meant to curb black money and put terrorists out of business, many analysts said it was motivated by politics rather than economics, and done with an eye on the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections.
Since the rise of the regional Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the late 1990s, national parties — the Congress and the BJP — have been often relegated to third and fourth positions in the state. This time around, the Congress has joined the governing SP as a junior partner in an alliance, and the BJP is making an all out effort to win back the state.
In the past few days, I’ve travelled through several districts in the state to ask people if the currency ban or “notebandi” (Hindi for stopping of notes) here - is an election issue.
The “notebandi” has without doubt touched every life, in the big cities, smaller towns and tiny villages, and everyone talks about the problems they’ve faced. But will it impact the way people vote? In the main market in Barabanki town, not far from the state capital, Lucknow, the trading community is seething at the “BJP’s betrayal”.
Traders have traditionally supported the BJP, and in the past they have also contributed generously to party funds. But this time, they tell me they will not vote for the party. “Notebandi is the biggest issue here,” says Santosh Kumar Gupta, who along with his brothers, runs the family hardware store. “The public has been really hassled. The government set limits on withdrawals and even those little amounts were unavailable because banks had no money.”
Gupta points out that in his address to the nation, the prime minister said the government had been planning for it for six months and that people would face minor problems.
“But there were lots of problems. Isn’t he ashamed of lying?” he asks angrily. “Police used sticks to beat up people waiting in queues to withdraw their own hard-earned money. All small manufacturing units in Barabanki shut down for weeks. Thousands became unemployed.”
“There’s a labour market a few metres from our shop and every morning, nearly 500 daily wage labourers from the nearby villages would gather to look for work, but for the first time, we saw there were no takers for them.” His brother Manoj Kumar Jaiswal adds: “Traders are very angry with Modi. He first said it was done to curb black money.
Then he said it was done to promote digital economy. “You can use credit cards and (popular mobile wallet) Paytm in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, not in Barabanki. People here are illiterate, many don’t have bank accounts or credit cards.” The Gupta family has 10 voters and not one will opt for the BJP.
In Gosaiganj, on the outskirts of Lucknow, I stop to talk to people gathered at a tea stall. Raja Ram Rawat, a 60-year-old widower, lives with his two sons and four grandchildren. The small plot of land he owns is not sufficient to support the family and his sons work as daily wagers to supplement the family income. “Since November 8, they’ve not been able to find work even for one day,” he says. I ask him how they are managing. “Earlier if we bought two kilograms of vegetables, now we buy only one. That’s how we are managing.”
A farmer in the group, Kallu Prasad, compares the ban to “poison” for his community - it came just as the rice crop had been harvested and the sowing season had begun for wheat, mustard and potatoes. “Normally we sell a kilo of rice for Rs 14, but this time we had to sell it for Rs 8 or Rs 9. We couldn’t buy seeds and pesticides in time. Farmers who grew vegetables were the worst affected. Since people had no money to buy vegetables, they had to just throw them away.”
In the holy city of Varanasi, walking through the narrow lanes of Lallapura area, where homes sit cheek by jowl, one cannot escape the noise of the looms. Here, every home is a tiny factory where weavers work in semi-darkened rooms, using coloured silk threads to create beautiful patterns. Varanasi is famous for its hand woven silk and cotton saris and nearly a million people make their living from this cottage industry here.
“It was like we were hit by a bolt of lightning,” says factory owner Sardar Mohd Hasim, describing the moment of Modi’s announcement. Hasim, who represents 30,000 weavers, says initially “about 90% of the industry” was affected since all their transactions happen in cash.
Looms still shut
“We had no cash to buy raw materials, we had no cash to pay wages to the workers. Nearly three months later, all my 24 looms are still shut. Most of my weavers are doing other jobs to earn a living.”
Varanasi has eight assembly constituencies, and Hasim insists that BJP will not win even one. “Why would anyone now vote for Modi?” he asks. One of his former workers, 40-year-old Mangru Prajapati, who is now back to work in Hasim’s brother’s loom, agrees. He’s the sole breadwinner for his family of eight.
Rajan Behal, trader and leader of the organisation that represents traders, weavers and sellers, calls it a “major disaster”. The ban, he says, couldn’t have come at a worse time - November to February is the wedding season when sales peak, but this year it’s been a wipe-out. A long-time BJP supporter, Behal refuses to say who he will vote for but predicts that Modi “will not win enough seats to be able to form a government in the state”.
It’s an assessment challenged by senior BJP leader in the state Vijay Pathak, who pegs the party’s chances of winning at “101%”. He says that there were difficulties in the implementation of the currency ban, but insists that they have been able to convince the voters that it was done in the nation’s interest. “We started our campaign with the aim to win more than 265 of the 403 seats. Now we believe we will cross 300.”
That, he says, is because people have faith in “the man who’s taking the decisions” - the prime minister. On this count, he’s right - Modi’s personal stock remains high, especially with the youth. In Kukha Rampur village in Tiloi constituency in Amethi district, 21-year-old Tanu Maurya says she will vote for Modi because he is “doing good work” and that the note ban was “a good decision even if it caused some hardships in the short term”.
Since his sweep of the 2014 general election, Modi has not had much luck in state elections and he’s desperate to reverse that losing trend. A victory in the politically key state of Uttar Pradesh would be a huge shot in the arm for Modi and his party.
But will the rupee ban help him or hurt his chances? When the votes are counted on March 11, we will know whether it was a masterstroke or a miscalculation.