Every political party in Punjab courts farmers for a good poll harvest. But historically, the peasantry has been the political constituency of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). Its ally, the BJP, too, found favour with traders and urban voters. The two have sailed through the last two elections –– together.
The Congress could not hold on to its traditional vote bank of Dalits and Hindus. The former drifted towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and later the SAD, which has wooed them with schemes such as subsidised atta-dal. It lost Hindus to the saffron surge in the country. But demonetisation of old currency is striking a jarring note among owners of small-scale industries and farmers –– the SAD-BJP base –– and may lead to change in voting patterns in the assembly elections on February 4.
Political parties first smelt an opportunity in the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal row to woo farmers. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are now trying to make note ban a poll issue. They may not be off the mark. The economic situation may make voters take political decisions.
In the bicycle hub of the country, Ludhiana, for instance, the note ban seems to have led to a churn in the voting preferences as the industry claims its “nuts and bolts” are literally falling apart. In Janta Nagar’s small, smoky factories such as Dee Tee Traders, which makes “hub axles” for manufacturers and exporters. Its owner, Deepak Takiar, 37, started the business in 1999 when the industry was booming. He employs 30-35 workers on contract. After the note ban, he has 15. “The labour wants cash and we don’t have any. We were already suffering the onslaught of cheaper Chinese components and after the note ban, our orders have fallen to half,” Takiar says. How will it impact the polls? “We voted for the BJP in Lok Sabha polls but it has left traders and industrialists in the lurch. We can’t support the party or its ally SAD this time.”
The situation is not as grim for medium-scale units such as Bhogal Cycles which employs 750 workers. This is one of India’s first companies that started making cycle parts in 1937. Its 63-year-old managing partner Avtar Bhogal says “you cannot make people go cashless overnight.”
Bhogal says three years ago he had opened bank accounts of all his workers. But many still do not know how to operate ATMs. One of his factory workers recently lost R40,000 to an ATM fraud. “On any given day, a third of our labour report absent. The government wants us to cut money for ESI hospitals and provident fund but the labour does not want to block its money. They have to wait at poorly-maintained ESI hospitals for hours for medicines. No wonder they prefer private clinics,” he adds.
Shesh Ram, 31, a native of Gonda district in Uttar Pradesh, who has been working at cycle manufacturers Bhogal and Sons Pvt Ltd for the past 13 years, says he is struggling to pay for milk and vegetables. “I am pulling along with little cash I get from my owner.” Ram is heading back to UP to cast his vote. “I will see the mood in my village and then vote,” he says.
For Bhogal who claims to work on “bills and pays taxes”, the note ban has led to 30-40 per cent depletion in orders as the cycle and cycle spares industry runs on cash.On whether demonetisation will decide his vote, Bhogal says he has always voted for the Congress.
Harmohinder Singh Pahwa, 73, the managing partner of Nova Cycles, has urgent worries. “As orders were drying up, we reduced our working hours gradually from 12 hours to 10, then to eight and now to five. The system of contractual labour [40 per cent for his company] will almost end. Companies will hire only permanent employees now on. But even during days when there is less production, we will have to pay them,” he adds. Though the company is opening bank accounts for workers, Pahwa says this will take his costs up by 15 per cent. On demonetisation’s impact on the polls, he says that “the industry is angry at the mismanagement”.
Charanjit Singh Vishivkarma, president, United Cycle Parts Manufacturers’ Association, articulates the mood of the industry. The body caters to 2,500 of the nearly 4,000 cycle units in the city and Vishivkarma says it is because of Ludhiana that cycles in the country are cheaper by at least ~800. “Ludhiana accounts for 90 per cent of bicycle and bicycle parts manufactured in the country. The scrap of one unit becomes raw material for another,” he says. Vishivkarma says they are “pure Akalis” and their three generations have supported SAD. “But we will not vote for them or BJP now,” he says. “Even as labour is leaving, the big steel cartels of the country are keeping prices high. The small-scale industry was already on the ventilator. Now, it will be wiped out. Modi’s own ‘Make in India’ slogan is the first casualty of the note ban.”