“Have you seen a single rich man or politician standing in a bank queue?” is the refrain you hear across Uttar Pradesh, as voters prepare to cast their first ballots in the Assembly election. You hear it from Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs —who are traditional supporters of parties other than the BJP —but also from floating voters from other sections.
Conventional wisdom had it that this election, like all others in the past, would be dominated caste- and community-centric issues. The fact that there was hardly any popular agitation against demonetisation gave one the impression that it was not going to be a major issue. However, it has emerged as a crucial factor in determining the electoral outcome.
“People didn’t protest over demonetisation because they were busy standing in the bank and ATM queues,” explained a pro-BJP school teacher in a village in Moradabad district.
In general, there is a sense of discontent over demonetisation in UP among farmers, daily-wagers, small businessmen and informal sector workers. However, the degree of anger is mediated by caste and religious identities. Core voters of the BJP, like the upper castes, Banias and some sections of the Lodhs and Kushwahas, tend to admit the difficulties caused by demonetisation while defending the move for its abstract objectives. Non-BJP voters like Dalits, Muslims, Yadavs as well as a significant bloc of other OBCs are, however, aggressively vocal on the difficulties they had to endure.
Conventionally, opinions expressed in public discourse tend to be influenced by upper caste groups including Banias who dominate public spaces like the village chaupals, tea shops and market squares. This influence plays a significant role in the shaping of opinions of floating voters who tend to go by their subjective perceptions of the winnability factor. This time, however, with demonetisation causing general suffering across the spectrum, the upper castes lost their confidence as opinion mobilisers and became apologists instead. On the other hand, traditional voters of the non-BJP parties, like the Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits, are articulating the anti-demonetisation narratives lot more boldly.
This role reversal was visible to this correspondent in the village of Sitapur where pro-BSP Jatav respondents confidently and logically silenced some Thakur respondents when the latter tried to present a bright picture of demonetisation. The BJP scored a spectacular success in the 2014 Lok Sabha election in UP, taking a 42.3% share of the popular vote. This was mainly due to the pro-BJP swing of floating voters, primarily from non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit castes. In addition, some core voters of the BSP and SP —Jatav-Dalits and Yadavs respectively—deserted the parties in favour of the saffron party.
However, our fieldwork across UP revealed that a shift has taken place since 2014. Not only have the core voters of the SP and BSP returned to their respective parties, floating voters were seen to share the anti-demonetisation sentiment. This shift was summarised pithily by a group of Brahmin, Nishad and Kurmi respondents at Mangari village in Gosaiganj constituency at Faizabad: “Notebandi ka jawaab votebandi” (The answer to note ban is a vote ban). Another factor why demonetisation might go against the BJP is its Modi-centric campaign strategy.
(Sajjan Kumar is a PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based Research Organisation, specialising in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies.)