Having performed his prayers at the mosque in Padartha village in Uttarakhand shortly after the break of dawn on Monday, Taufiq Ahmad stood outside a roadside tea stall, looking for a ride to Haridwar town, around 18 km away. A semi-skilled labourer who mostly works at construction sites in and around the pilgrim town, the 60-year-old said the first two months after the government’s demonetisation decision on November 8 had left him with no work, no wages and no way to feed his family. Now, he works around 10 days a month in sugarcane fields in the area, earning between Rs 150 and Rs 200 a day – half of what he used to make earlier.
The hardships he faced have made him certain that the cash crunch will have a bearing on Assembly elections in the state on Wednesday. When asked who he thinks will win from Haridwar Rural constituency, one of two seats from where incumbent Chief Minister Harish Rawat is contesting, Ahmad said, the Bharatiya Janata Party “will have to bear the repercussions of notebandi”.
Padartha village, which comes under Haridwar Rural constituency in the plains of the Garhwal region, has close to 500 Muslim families who are backing Rawat, despite the fact that he hails from the Kumaon hills. For this election, Rawat dropped his hill constituency of Dharchula to contest from the plains – Haridwar Rural and Kichha, which is in Kumaon. The Garhwal-Kumaon divide had led to turmoil in the state last year and a rebellion led by senior Garhwali leaders that had almost cost Harish Rawat his chair.
The lane adjacent to the mosque in Padartha leads to several hamlets inhabited by Gujjars, most of whom own cattle while a few work as labourers in Haridwar. At the Gujjar basti, 70-year-old Mohammad Saifi spoke of his demonetisation experience – standing in long queues outside banks and often returning home without any money to meet the daily needs of not only his family but also his cattle. “No foreign country can do as much harm to our citizens as an inefficient local leader can do,” he said, referring to the Centre’s decision to withdraw high-value bank notes.
Till Rawat announced that he would be contesting the elections from Haridwar Rural, the villagers had believed that his daughter, Anupama Rawat, would be the Congress candidate from the area. The residents of Padartha and neighbouring villages like Dhanpura and Bherupur are familiar with Anupama Rawat, who has been active in the area for the past two to three years as a grassroots worker addressing local issues.
On the other hand, they complained of not having seen much of the sitting MLA, Swami Yatishwaranand of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and alleged that he had not delivered on his promises.
His party seems to have considered this factor too. Outside a Dalit colony in Bherupur on Monday, BJP workers had stationed a mini-truck with loudspeakers blaring out messages. “Jo kaam reh gaye they adhoore, iss baar karenge poore,” they promised. (What we could not finish the last time, we will do it this time.)
Touching on the subject of black money, to curb which the Central government had launched its demonetisation drive, they played the song, “Bharat Maa ka sher hain humara Narendra bhai. Kaale dhan ko wapas laye, khatam kare mehengai.” Narendra Modi is Mother India’s own lion. He shall bring black money back to the country and eradicate inflation.”
In the Dalit colony, the youth complained of no jobs, poor sanitation and inadequate healthcare facilities, and the fact that no BJP leader had stepped forward to help them. “There are nearly 1,800 adult residents in this colony and all shall vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party leader here, who is at least present whenever we are in any crisis,” said 26-year-old Sumit Kumar, a school dropout who has been unemployed for a long time.
Like Kumar, his friends Vinod, Arvind and Gulbahar, like most of the young people in the colony, are also school dropouts. “What can we do?” asked Vinod, who works at a metal welding unit and has two children. “By the time we pass Class 7 or Class 8, we have to start thinking about earning a livelihood. It is like a vicious cycle – our fathers and forefathers, too, were not sufficiently educated to work and feed the entire family. So we had to drop out. If things do not change soon, out children will have to drop out too.”
The identity divide
While demonetisation is a current topic, the Garhwal-Kumaon divide has always been a part of Uttarakhand politics. So, when the Kumaoni chief minister announced his intention to contest the elections from the two seats in the plains, it was taken as a clear signal that he means to address this divide.
There are some who say this regional rivalry will not affect their electoral choices. Vinita Chand, a 30-year-old housewife in Ajitpur village, 10 km from Haridwar, is one of them. “Here [in Haridwar Rural], it is more of a game of merit,” she said. Chand is a native of the Kumaon region but has been living in Garhwal for nearly four years now after moving here with her husband, who works in a factory of a multinational company, to build their own house. “Politics should be kept away from such brotherhood. I am a Kumaon myself and the fact that one of the candidates contesting from this area is a Kumaon does not affect me. We need a leader who can deliver his promises and is accessible for residents here.”
But the divide is a deciding factor for many others. In the faraway villages of the constituency, there is a lot of support for Harish Rawat. But this support wanes closer to Hardware.
There could be two reasons for this, said Rakesh Rawat, 38, a Garhwali who works in a factory in the town and lives with his family in the Maya Vihar neighbourhood around 8 km away. First, the Congress and those related to Harish Rawat have always focussed more on villages like Padartha and Dhanpura, which have large Muslim populations, he said. The chief minister is reportedly counting on the Muslim and Dalit belt, which together would account for 40% of voters in the constituency.
“While those living there say they did not get to see much of the sitting MLA, it was never so in our village or the immediate neighbours,” Rakesh added. He also said the Congress had not campaigned much in Maya Vihar and its neighbourhood in the previous elections, and it will, therefore, not be surprising if they do not get too many votes here.