Queues with no more than seven to eight people outside ATMs in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi were like a mirage. For travellers from Delhi, who have seen nothing but mile-long lines since the government scrapped the Rs 500/1,000 notes on November 8, this was nothing short of a miracle.
We watched (in shock and awe) as people went in and came out counting their cash.
Locals in the city — that will go to polls in the new year — were quick to point out that cash crunch was eased as soon as news of its MP, no less than the Prime Minister of the county, Narendra Modi was expected to make a quick dash to his constituency.
“Modi ji ke aane ki khabar sunte hi note bhi aa gaye,” (The notes arrived with the news that Modi ji will be coming),” our driver Deepak pointed out.
Elsewhere in the city, the stress of having no loose change, or looking for digital payment options was conspicuous by its absence. There are no advertisements for digital payment wallets plastered across the city nor have banks put up posters nudging people to switch from cash payments to cards.
Ramji, a sales person at one of the big sari stores in the city, says most of their clients now use plastic money, but he senses distress among the poor weavers.
“This (demonetisation) seems like a good move. The ‘big fish’ are finally getting caught,” he laughs. ‘Big fish’ is a euphemism for the corrupt.
He throws in names of a few — a lady doctor, a government official, a businessman — who made it to the city’s headlines for having amassed wealth beyond their known sources of income.
The drive against the ‘big fish’ has won the Prime Minister admirers in the city of ‘moksha’ (liberation). Most here are not interested in the other consequences of demonetisation: the snuffing out of counterfeit currency or the so-called death blow to terror and drug outfits as claimed by the government. For them it is just a move that cracks down on the corrupt and somehow ensures a level playing field.
“The rich were getting richer. No one was thinking of the poor. Now the black money will come out and be distributed among the poor,” says Cheddi Lal, our boatman.
He says demonetisation has not affected his business much, but his owner has been complaining. He is not sure about switching to digital payment platforms and says he would rather stick to cash.
“I work from morning till night. Going to the bank is not easy for me. These things should be for the rich who have people (helpers) to run errands,“ he says.
His fellow rower Shyamji too believes that the confiscated money — from those who stashed bundles at home — will somehow reach the poor.
The description of black money is the quintessential narrative of ill-gotten wealth sewn into mattresses and concealed in secret lockers built in walls, as Hindi movies have us believe.
They are not alone. There are many in the city who either do not know or do not consider not paying taxes as an offence.
Demonetisation and its impact on elections may be the mainstay for political punditry in the metros, but for most people in the PM’s constituency, polls are not seen through the prism of political or administrative decisions.
Criticism of the move is evident in some quarters. In Lallapura, where looms shuttle non-stop, demonetisation has brought in a lull. Most weavers here say they can only weave on the machines, as opposed to using the handloom and using inexpensive yarn.
A host of people in the city that thrives on its weaves and religious tourism, talk of continuing support for the PM and their reasons are mostly drawn from an affinity to a Hindu party. There is no mistaking the religious undercurrent.
This city, the oldest known civilisation, has its own equivalent of the Ram temple - Babri Masjid dispute: the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi Mosque issue is a simmering cauldron that is stirred at regular intervals.
Outside the temple, the issue comes up several times which, the locals say, is fostered by “politicians”.
“One look at the structure and you know it’s a temple. You don’t need to be an expert. But look what these politicians do,” says a shop owner who doubles up as a guide.
He wants to be around to see the structure restored as a temple, but adds wistfully, “Even Modi ji cannot do it. It is gone now.”
Development, jobs, cleaning the city and its lifeline -- the Ganga -- healthcare and education, which were the promises that the BJP made, make perfunctory appearance in conversations.
“Modi ji ordered a six-lane highway from the airport. The Akhilesh Yadav government had no option but to speed up the metro construction after Modi ji began to monitor it,“ says Dharampal, a cab driver.
He says by 2019, people will see a shiny new city. The ghats, which are being cleaned, are light years away from the developed river fronts that were sold to people at the time of signing agreements with multiple countries.
The narrow lanes with houses cheek by jowl are still full of waste, with signs of waste collection and segregation remaining largely ignored.
Incessant honking, rash driving, spitting in public are a reminder that Varanasi has not changed, not yet, at least.
Political and caste lines are drawn, and religious territories earmarked. But few complain. They don’t blame the government. For them, this is familiar, this is the city they know.
On the surface, most seem content, just as you would expect in the city that teaches detachment and finds nothing macabre in showing off its cremation grounds as a tourist destination.
What do you want from your MP, I ask Deepak. “Modi ji ne bola khud ko sambhalo, desh khud hi samabhal jayega...wohi kar rahen hai (Modi ji said you take care of yourself, the country will be taken care of. That is what we are doing,“ he says, squirting red betel nut juice from his mouth.