The anger against demonetisation is palpable in western Uttar Pradesh.
Though the region’s Hindu and Muslim traders are not usually vocal about the impact of the demonetisation on their lives, when prodded, they quietly point to setbacks caused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invalidate old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes overnight in November.
Members of the dominant Jat community, however, speak with candour once the topic is broached.
A lost crop
Sohram Singh, a young Jat, cultivates his family’s land in Khirwa Naobad village, about 20 km from Meerut city. It is part of the Siwalkhas Assembly constituency.
Sugarcane is the mainstay of this region. In November, when demonetisation sucked out 86% of the currency in circulation in India overnight, Singh and his father were planning to harvest their sugarcane crop and sow wheat, a regular feature in this part of the country at that time of the year.
Demonetisation hit them at the time they needed cash to buy seeds and other farm inputs, and pay labour for the harvest.
“I don’t understand what this Digital India business is, but it hit us very hard,” said Singh. “Farmers have been extremely stressed for years in this belt. Then they take away our cash and expect us to support them?”
The anger poured out slowly as his father, Inderpal Singh, listened to the conversation.
“Why should we stand in line to withdraw our money?” continued the junior Singh. “Does the government think that we have all the time in the world? Who tends to the fields during the reaping and sowing time?”
Sohram Singh finished college and attempted to get into the Army like many other Jat youngsters from villages do. Joining the famed Jat Regiment is still a matter of pride in these parts. But he fell short of the minimum height requirement by three inches. As age caught up with him, he gave up his ambitions to leave the village and settled in agriculture.
“My father and his brother were the most well educated people from this village,” he said. “In 1971, he was the only one with a Master’s degree. Had he taken up a job, we would have prospered. But he loved farming and look where we ended up. We will show them what it means for us to be cashless.”
Western Uttar Pradesh votes on February 11, the first phase of the seven-phase Assembly elections in the state.
In the neighbouring Assembly constituency of Sardhana, BJP’s Sangeet Som is the sitting MLA. He is re-contesting from this seat. In 2013, Som was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Muzaffarnagar riots in which more than 50 people were killed. After he was released on bail, he came to the aid of other Jats arrested in connection with the riots. Ideally, that should have ensured him a great amount of support in this area. However, a few days before polling, Atul Pradhan, the Samajwadi Party candidate, seems to be gaining ground here.
Nearly 60 km away, in the village of Bijrol in the constituency of Baraut, Jats are just as angry.
“We had to take material on credit once notebandi [demonetisation] hit us,” said a wizened farmer. “There is a society that works as intermediary, and decides the price for seeds, fertilisers and takes a commission from the minimum support price. With notebandi, we had to take everything on credit that comes at a 12% to 13% interest. What are we going to eat?”
The others with him, nodded in agreement.
Rajendra Singh, who worked as a teacher with the state government for decades, lamented the crisis in agriculture that demonetisation exacerbated. He returned to his village of Bijrol after he retired, and says it resembles a retirement home.
“Most of the youngsters are gone,” said Singh. “Only the seniors are left. We can work hard, but the next generation can’t. Who will do agriculture in the future? And now the notebandi has hit us. Prices have soared for fertiliser, electricity and seeds. And [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has done nothing for us.”
In Muzzaffarnagar town, traders are also upset. The trader community has traditionally been the BJP’s core base for decades. But they faced severe hardship when demonetisation struck.
A Hindu trader in the main market, who requested that he remain unidentified, pointed to his unsold stocks and said that it had been three months since demonetisation, but the market had still not recovered.
However, he did not criticise the BJP, since he has been a supporter of the party all his life.
“My family has always been BJP supporters, and I never bothered to vote,” he said. “But this time I will.” He added that it was notebandi that has prompted him to do so.
The fact that Modi chose to personally associate himself with the decision to demonetise India’s currency seems to have tarnished his once larger-than-life image. People here mainly associate him with the decision, and most blame him.
In 2014, Karan Chandna, who runs a hardware shop in Meerut, had voted for the BJP. He was part of the Modi leher, or wave, that swept the region.
“Now we are all leher-affected and we will have to bear the pain,” he said with a half smile. The flood-affected analogy is not lost on those gathered around him. “Business fell by more than 60% and it still hasn’t recovered,” he said. “My business depends on construction but most people put off their purchases. I agree that the move may have been good. But do you see many leaders or industrialists who have been caught with their black money?”
But Sandeep Goel, the mahamantri of the Sardana Road Trader’s Association, admitted that business has been bad but he remains supportive of the BJP and the prime minister.
“Well, there are hardships and the bankers let us down,” said Goel. “But we have to lose something to gain something, don’t we?”
He plans to support the sitting BJP MLA from the Meerut cantonment constituency, but said that the BJP should have gone for a younger candidate.
A few other traders, who did not want to be identified, said that demonetisation was not a good decision.
“Do you hear the BJP talking much about notebandi?” asked one trader. “Doesn’t that tell you a tale.”
In Baghpat town too, traders are upset with the BJP, as are the Jats.
Many Jats here are vocal about their support to Ajit Singh, leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Singh is the son of Jat leader, farmer icon and former Prime Minister Charan Singh.
“This time, we are with Chaudhry Ajit Singh,” is a common refrain. “He understands our pain. He will speak for us.”
Off the Budhana-Muzzaffarnagar highway, Suresh Kumar, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste, toiled in his jaggery producing centre one day last week. As the sugarcane juice was boiled and filtered, before it cooled to form fresh jaggery, he scraped off the old stock and prepared a fresh batch.
“Notebandi was hard, but I support the prime minister,” said Kumar. “I think this was a good thing.”
Such sporadic voices of support could give the BJP some solace in this region.
However, western Uttar Pradesh has 77 Assembly seats out of which Jats, who comprise 18% of the population, can influence nearly 45 seats to 48 seats.
And the Jats are angry at the BJP, and not just over demonetisation. Members of the community have not forgotten what they see as the heavy-handed treatment of Jats in BJP-ruled Haryana during riots on the issue of reservations last year.
It’s no wonder then that the Jat community is vocal about supporting the Rashtriya Lok Dal. And that is bad news for the BJP’s aspirations to capture Uttar Pradesh after more than a decade.