MUZAFFARNAGAR: The network of highways running from New Delhi to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh are usually choked with heavy traffic, but on this cold winter morning in January, the roads are relatively empty.
At a dhaba just ahead of Meerut city on the route to Muzaffarnagar, the mood is solemn. Hardly any tables are occupied, with the staff eager to serve the handful of hungry passerbys. “Demonetisation has finished us all. The traffic passing through this area has greatly diminished, and hardly anyone stops at dhabas now,” says the middle aged owner. His words set the tone for the rest of the journey.
Although he’s a gujjar — a community that in large numbers supports the Bharatiya Janata Party — he says he will be hesitant to vote for the lotus in the upcoming state assembly elections. “This is Mayawati’s belt,” he says of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party leader, but Akhilesh Yadav [of the Samajwadi Party] is poised to do very well.” By now, a small crowd has gathered around the dhaba owner, and all nod in unison. “Akhilesh will win,” they say.
The scenic drive into Muzaffarnagar is interspersed by heavy construction — a clear indication of the development Uttar Pradesh has seen over the last decade or so. A few meters ahead of a KFC that seems to be in the process of opening is a commercial building housing a McDonald’s, Costa Coffee and several other outlets of big chains. Here, the impact of demonetisation has been limited, the people behind the counters tell us. “Card waale aatein hain (people who use cards largely come here),” says a young man at Costa Coffee. “Judging from the people that pass by here and what they tell us, the BJP is poised to do well,” say two young men working in an upscale handicrafts store in the complex.
As we enter Muzaffarnagar, the scene changes. The big buildings and branded chains that had characterised the drive near Meerut give way to shanty huts and local dhabas once again. In 2013, this area had been witness to some of the worst communal riots in modern India, as at least 60 people were killed and over 50,000 displaced as Muslims and Jats came to blows. Over 42 Muslims were killed in the violence, as were 20 Hindus, with the actual numbers probably much higher.
Three years on, there is little indication of the deep violence that had recently disrupted all life in this area. At a chowk in the district, large groups of men sit idly. “We have no work,” a lanky middle aged man tell us. “Demonetisation has finished us all off,” another echoes. “All the factories in the district have shut down… the out-of-state labour has all gone home, and we have absolutely no work.”
The group is largely composed of daily labourers, that have gathered at the chowk in hope of finding some work for the day. A conversation with the affected group reveals the deep impact of demonetisation on the lives of India’s neediest. Small industry in the area has almost entirely shut down and labour is struggling to make ends meet.
By now, more people have gathered around and the crowd swells to include people from all walks of life. Here too, there is palpable excitement for Akhilesh Yadav. “SP will win in this area,” says a daily labourer, adding that in his opinion, demonetisation will serve the final blow to the BJP.
The crowd is mixed in terms of profession, but also caste and religion. When asked about the riots, the group is unanimous in its contention that the violence is a matter of the past. “People have forgotten; there is no ill blood,” says an elderly Muslim man. “We want peace, that’s all that matters,” echoes a young man in the crowd.
A few kilometers ahead, on the way to Muzaffarnagar town, the sentiment remains the same. “Akhilesh has worked hard; he will get the majority,” says a middle aged Muslim gentleman. The Muslim vote, in this district, it seems is swinging in favour of the Samajwadi Party, with the recent family drama between father and son working out in favour of the young Chief Minister. “He’s better than Mulayum,” another face in the crowd yells out. “He’s worked hard. There’s been a lot of development,” says a third. The crowd that’s gathered is largely Muslim, and the fervour for Akhilesh is apparent.
The anger spiralling from demonetisation is uniform as we travel, and individual stories of hardship pour in. “Only 10-15 factories in the area are still functional. No one has any money to pay the labour,” one person tells us. The group feels that the SP-Congress alliance will pay off, as the limited but solid Brahman Congress vote will shift to the SP owing to it. “SP and only SP will win,” says the emphatic crowd, as chants in favour of Akhilesh resonate.
This area is part of the first phase of the polls, and despite the elections being just a few weeks away, there are no posters or party signs visible. Campaigning is yet to begin, but politics has already come to dominate conversation, with people’s minds largely made up… or so it seems.
Ahead, outside the local court, a crowd quickly gathers around us. “I had voted for the BJP last time, but will not this time,” a young man says. “Demonetisation is part of the reason, but the party has lied over and over again. They don’t care about the poor.” The crowd all agrees, and as two smartly dressed men join, the group jokingly asks us to question them. “They were BJP supporters in the past… but just ask them how angry they are now,” the group says, making light of the situation.
The men in question are from the Jat community. “We have shifted our support to the gathbandhan,” says Pawan Pradhan. “It’s because of Ajit Singh… the BJP has done nothing for us,” he explains. At the time, the SP and Congress were in talks with Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal for an alliance. The alliance, at the time of writing, seems to not have materialised.
The other Jats in the group agree. “We will not vote for the BJP – that is a collective decision we as a community have taken,” they say. “The violence of 2013 was orchestrated in part by the BJP, and it has deeply affected the Jat community in the area. Muslims who used to work on our fields have all gone away; they didn’t want to have anything to do with us.” The group adds that measures such as demonetisation, along with the party furnishing false promises, has led to the Jats moving away from the BJP.
We find Jats echoing the same position as we travel through the district. When asked whether they are willing to vote for the same party as the Muslims, they say they have no hesitation in doing so. “If Ajit Singh forms an alliance with the SP, we have no problem voting for the SP. If he doesn’t; we’ll vote for him irrespective,” says a young man from the Jat community at another area in the district.
The crowd outside the court now comprises a mix of Jats, Muslims and others. It is hard to imagine that just a few years ago, these communities inflicted such brutal violence on one another. Today, they stand arm in arm, united in their distress. Suku Ahmad, an elderly man comes forward to tell us about how he lost his daughter-in-law recently to demonetisation-related concerns. The crowd here echoes what we’ve been hearing so far — that demonetisation has brought life to a virtual standstill. “Industry has all shut down,” “Modiji has looted the poor and is roaming abroad on that looted money,” “Gareeb ko phasee dee hain (the poor have been hung),” the crowd says.
Kush Naseeb, a young driver says that he used to earn about 300 rupees a day, and now struggles to make 100 rupees on a good day. Throughout the district, from labourers to shopkeepers to others, the story is the same. Business is down, and earnings have been reduced by more than half.
Here too, the vote seems to be in favour of the Samajwadi Party. “Akhilesh has done a lot of work,” most in the group agree. The recent controversy between Akhilesh and his father Mulayam, it seems, has worked in cleaning the younger Yadav’s image in the public eye, with a lot of the angst with the party being defected to Mulayam.
Further into the district at a local market, the shopkeepers paint a slightly different picture. Some of them say that demonetisation had a very limited impact on their earnings, while others — who agree that the measure has taken a negative toll — remain steadfast in their support for the ruling central party. Just a few meters ahead we meet a local pandit. “Demonetisation has pushed this country back by 20 years,” the saffron-clan holy man tells us. “Last time I had voted for the BJP, but not this time. There’s been too much trouble for the poor,” he says, adding that the SP has a solid chance.
At a local flower shop, the owner speaks softly but surely. “This is a BJP town,” he tells us, adding that he will be voting for the party. “Demonetisation, however, has had an impact, so let’s see if it swings the vote. Time will tell.” He encourages us to ask the two workers in his store about the impact of the move.
The two elderly men are quietly stringing together flowers at the back of the store. “It’s the aam aadmi that’s been impacted,” they tell us. “Akhilesh Yadav is a smart kid; he will do well. The new generation deserves a chance,” they say. We realise at this moment that the store owner is Hindu while the workers are Muslim. The owner respectfully listens to the two men. “Many people have been harassed by demonetisation,” the owner chimes in. “They are naturally against the BJP. The poor, especially, have been badly impacted.” The two men working patiently with the flowers nod in agreement.
The voice in Muzaffarnagar is varied, but the support for Akhilesh was increasingly vocal as we moved through the district. “All the sins of the last several years have been washed away by the drama of the last month,” a kurmi vendor (who supports the BJP) at a chowk in the district correctly pointed out.
As we travelled through western UP, the support for Akhilesh was a constant feature, but outside of Muzaffarnagar, the dimensions that make Uttar Pradesh the complicated political state that it is became more evident. The BJP vote was more certain of its victory near Meerut, and the quiet but numerous Dalit vote was steadfast in its support for the BSP and Mayawati. “It’s a three way fight,” said a young man at a highway restaurant. “Anyone can win.”
(PHOTOS BY ROHIT RAJVARDHAN)
(This article was first published in The Citizen)