If there’s a national issue at stake in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, it’s demonetisation, or notebandi in local parlance. The sentiment of class revenge it aroused at the outset has apparently ebbed, not dissipated. That’s where lies the grey space, the territory unknown to stakeholders across parties.
In that limited sense, it isn’t a subject that’ll decide the election. It may give the potential winner, or numero uno, the headstart needed in a triangular contest.
That’s why the SP-Congress and the BSP deride notebandi as pain without gain. They say it hit the poor, not the rich.
The BJP, for its part, downplays the downside. When confronted, its leaders present demonetisation as Narendra Modi’s resolve to fight graft; to afford the poor their share in the country’s wealth. Their defence smacks of diffidence, speak as they do with half-conviction.
But public memory can be short. Even selective. The sense one gets from the ground is that identity gives way to angst where individual suffering is deep, such as loss of jobs, dips in incomes, closure of businesses.
Otherwise, caste allegiances, local alignments and historical biases make for the bigger picture. Those driven by such concerns want punished the tormentors in their vicinity. Not the big players.
A cabbie who drove me around in Lucknow and to Barabanki and Faizabad voted for Modi in the 2014 Tsunami despite his Yadav identity. He’s now for a renewed term for Akhilesh Yadav. Reason: Notebandi, the CM’s youthful appeal and the spring cleaning he has done to build an SP minus its unedifying past.
At Ramsnehi Ghat that’s the border between Barabanki and Faizabad districts, a scheduled caste boy, Bajram Gautam, sat with a clutch of Yadav youth, venting ire against demonetisation that left a plywood factory without business and him without a job. He and Anup Kaushal, a baniya who unloaded trucks at the factory, found the SP a better option than the BSP or BJP.
On the caste calculus, they should’ve been with the BSP and the BJP. But their’s is a class alliance that perhaps turns on its head the ‘poor versus the rich’ theme propagated by the saffron party to justify demonetisation.
At Dariyabad, which is part of the Faizabad Lok Sabha seat in Barabanki district, local jeweller Diwakar Baba also moved around campaigning on class basis. He said his clansmen wanted the SP’s cycle to race ahead in UP. But will it? Instead of saying it would, he said it should --if Mulayam Singh ceased to play the stranger in Akhilesh’s new-look party.
That explained Modi’s charge of Akhilesh having wronged his father.
In fact, narratives changed as one moved from one spot to another. At Safdarganj Chowk that’s a few minutes ride from where Modi addressed a big public meeting in Barabanki, Paras Chaudhary, a teacher travelling from his native Basti in east UP agreed that demonetisation did him no good. He wasn’t paid salary as the private school he worked with had problems collecting fees from students.
But being a Kurmi, he was undecided. Why? The BSP and BJP have fielded candidates from his caste and the SP has a Yadav in the fray. How’s it that a young educated person couldn’t make up his mind? “I teach maths so am given to serious calculation. I want to be sure that I’m on the winning side.”
As we sat chatting at a snack bar, its owner, a baniya, kept his counsel. But when probed, he burst out saying notebandi didn’t just impact his roadside enterprise. The village from where he came had young men returning in droves on losing jobs in other states. “Hamara gaon bhara pada hai berozgar bachchon sei”.
The Pasis among the scheduled castes and the Kurmis I met had shared similar stories. Yet the blow hasn’t turned them openly retributive towards the BJP. They seemed to be weighing options. The Kurmis assembled at Modi’s rally pointed to Beni Prasad Varma’s alienation within the SP; the Pasis to their greater fear of the Yadavs.
These personality and caste-oriented fault lines are spread across constituencies, making psephology difficult. Like a Yadav boy who insisted his entire village would vote against the sitting SP MLA in Dariyabad to end the tyranny of his hangers-on. An elderly man from the same caste said he was at the PM’s rally as a Hindu.
But the reality is Akhilesh, like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar in the 2015 polls, doesn’t evoke belligerent opposition among competing castes and sceptics. His daunting challenge, together with that of Rahul Gandhi, is to transform incipient fondness to cogent love.
In the absence of a discernible wave, it’s difficult to say whether there’d be clear cut electoral endorsement --beyond the Yadavs and Muslims -- of their slogan of “ UP ko ye saath pasand hai.”