By Sajjan Kumar:
“Have you seen a single rich man or a politician standing in bank queues? It’s the poor who suffered due to demonetisation?”
This is the most common of all anti-demonetisation remarks across Uttar Pradesh. It is to be expected that such remarks would surface among the Muslims, Yadavs, and Jatavs, who are the support base of non-BJP parties. However, what should be disconcerting for the BJP is the fact that the non-Yadav OBCs, non-Jatav Dalits, and other ‘floating voters’ who are considered to be ‘pro-BJP’ by the saffron party, have also subscribed to these remarks.
That demonetisation would emerge as such a significant electoral issue in a state popularly perceived to be driven by caste and community based fault lines defies conventional analyses of the electoral calculations of various political parties. The fact that there was hardly any popular agitation over the issue gave the impression that despite the extremes of opinions, it would not have any significant electoral bearing in the state. However, the undercurrent of antagonism against the electorates in general, and over demonetisation in particular, among the poor, is turning out to be the crucial factor determining the course of electoral outcome in UP.
“Notebandi pe log khamosh the kyunki logo ko ghar chalane ke liye pahle paise chahiye the. Wo bank aur ATM ki line me lagte ya virodh karte? Lekin logo me is baat pe gussa hai aur wo election me dikhega (The people didn’t protest over demonetisation as getting money to run the house was their priority. Were they to stand in bank and ATM queues or come out in protest? But the people’s anger will reflect in their voting)” – opined an otherwise pro-BJP school teacher, a Bania by caste, at a village in Moradabad.
The narrative over demonetisation is layered but clear. In general, there is a sense of anger and disillusionment among the people when contrasted with their occupational identities, such as farmers, daily-wage labourers, small and medium businessmen and people working in the informal sector. However, the degree of angst over the issue gets mediated by their caste and religious identities entrenched in the local ‘power equation’. The ground reality is that while BJP’s core supporters have sounded apologetic over demonetisation, advocating it only half-heartedly, BJP’s opponents have been vocal and aggressive in criticising and attacking the demonetisation move.
This has lead to a paradigm shift in the role of the ‘opinion-mobilising’ caste groups. These groups traditionally hail from upper castes, including Banias, who, despite their relative numerical weakness, dominate local public deliberative spaces like village chaupals, tea shops gatherings, market squares, which allows BJP to bring more people into their fold. Their dominance in popular articulations in multiple public spaces, thus, has a significant bearing upon the electorates popularly considered as ‘floating voters’.
With demonetisation causing general suffering across several occupational categories, the upper castes have lost the necessary confidence to act as ‘opinion-mobilisers’, and have become ‘apologists’ at worst. It is the voters of non-BJP parties, who are not only articulating the anti-demonetisation narratives, but are also dominating the public deliberative spaces.
This role reversal was visible in a village at Sitapur, where the pro-BSP Jatav respondents confidently and logically silenced some Thakur advocators of demonetisation, when they tried to present a bright picture over the issue.
Seen against the backdrop of the spectacular success of the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha election in UP, when it succeeded in getting 42.3% of the popular votes, a gain of 25% from 2009 – the pro-BJP sway of ‘floating voters’ emerged as the prime factor for its historic performance, besides the temporary desertion of core voters of BSP and SP in favour of the saffron party. However, a survey conducted across the state has revealed that shift that has taken place since 2014. Not only have the core-voters of SP and BSP returned to their respective parties, the floating voters have also been sharing the popular anti-demonetisation sentiment in the election-bound state. This sentiment was aptly summarised in the response of a group of Brahmin, Nishad and Kurmi respondents at Mangari village falling under the Gosaiganj Assembly constituency at Faizabad, who collectively remarked, “Notebandi ka Jawaab Votebandi! (Demonetisation to be avenged by non-voting for BJP!)”
Another factor as to why the issue of demonetisation will work significantly against BJP, is their Modi-centric campaign strategy, rather than projecting and fielding a CM candidate. In 2014, Modi signified hope and aspiration for the lower castes. In 2017, however, Modi symbolises the sufferings and hardships of the people of UP on account of demonetisation. Tale after tale recounting the instances of the daily hardships of not getting money to treat an ailing family member, drastic decline in daily wages, struggles to procure fertilisers and seeds for farming, day-long bank queues to get money and depressing experiences and struggles to manage the marriages of daughters constitute the dominant narrative of impact of demonetisation in UP. With Modi as the face of BJP campaign, the negatives of demonetisation have been brought to the focus, thereby, overshadowing the positive claims of the BJP. The ‘Modi wave’ that swept the ‘floating voters’ in 2014 is likely to be replaced by the charm of Akhilesh Yadav who stands for tangible, immediate and concrete welfare measures, or by Mayawati, who still fares as the preferred choice for electorates privileging ‘law and order’ over other indicators.
Hence, it can be reasonably inferred that the defensive stance of the core pro-BJP voters in the state will have a serious bearing upon the electoral performance of the party, which seems to be failing in enthusing its core voters and swaying the ‘floating’ ones. This sentiment was well captured in Bundelkhand, the worst-hit region of the state, when a respondent remarked that as a Brahmin he is ‘pro-BJP’, but as a farmer he is ‘anti-BJP’. The ‘Achhe din (Good days)’ claim of demonetisation seems to have boomeranged in the state, as the resonating choruses happen to be ‘Kale din (Dark days)‘ in place of ‘Kale dhan (Black money)‘, ‘Bure din (Bad days)‘ in place of ‘Achhe din (Good days)‘, and ‘Barbadi (Destruction)‘ rather than ‘Khushhali (Prosperity)‘. Demonetisation has indeed been a demon for the people of UP.
The author has a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based Research Organisation, specialising in fieldwork based political and electoral studies.