KANPUR, Uttar Pradesh — It is that time again. India's largest state Uttar Pradesh, with a population of of 200 million people, is gripped by election fever. The talk is all about the upcoming Assembly polls. And, also demonetisation, and how it is going to affect the Bharatiya Janata Party's electoral fortunes.
When Asha (name changed) meets up with other housewives in Kanpur, they talk about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His surprise move to demonetize ₹500 and ₹1,000 currency notes has forced them to suspend their "kitties" and kitty parties — that hallowed pan-India phenomenon where women get together regularly to eat and chat, and pool together a kitty or fixed sum of money. No wonder Modi is Asha and her suspended kitty group's favourite punching bag these days.
Asha used to be a huge fan of Modi. But now, the elegantly attired fifty-something mother of two can't stop criticizing him. "We [the housewives] say that he never would have done this if he had to take care of his wife and mother every day," she said in a recent conversation. "I used to be a Modi fan but right now I don't want to vote for him."
Asha asked that her real name not be revealed so that she could speak without fear. She is affluent, lives in a small town, and does not want to risk any reprisals against her family or their business. "That is my issue," she said with emphasis. "Nobody is allowed to speak. We have our fundamental rights but nobody is allowed to speak. We get those Whatsapp messages, if you speak and it is not right, then you might be arrested. There is a sense of fear."
We have our fundamental rights but nobody is allowed to speak.
Even with cash slowly coming back into the system, Asha doesn't believe that the "kitties" of Kanpur will resume anytime soon. The housewives are afraid of keeping cash at home and they don't want to make regular deposits of significant sums in their bank accounts in case it raises suspicions. "If my husband was to give that amount to me, in which account will he give that money? In which account can I deposit?" she said.
Asha had about ₹2 lakh worth of cash with her on 8 November, when the prime minister announced the scrapping of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes. To her, that money spelt a sense of comfort.
"It is not about income tax," she explained. "It is a basic thing. You used to feel secure. But now it is not there. You don't know whether you want to earn more, do you want to spend more. It is a dilemma. You wonder whether spending is right, whether it will get you into trouble. If you can't spend then why do you earn. Then, you don't earn only, no?"
You used to feel secure. But now it is not there. You don't know whether you want to earn more, do you want to spend more.
Demonetisation is arguably the biggest gamble Modi has taken in his political career. The BJP is hoping against hope that it will boost their chances in the 2019 national election and deliver another term for Modi.
Two months after enduring the rigors of demonetisation, Asha admits that things have settled down, but points out that a sense of unease still prevails. She complained that on two occasions recently, the police pulled over a friend of hers and "thoroughly" searched the contents of her handbag. Ahead of the polls, UP is under the Moral Code of Conduct and police personnel have been deployed to check for liquor, arms and cash that could be used to influence voters. The authorities can seize any amount over ₹50,000.
When this was pointed out to Asha, she replied, "But it is not the first time that the election is happening. But it is the first time that we are getting harassed. If you say that you had withdrawn some of the amount five days ago, they will say then why have you not spent it."
If you say that you had withdrawn some of the amount five days ago, they will say then why have you not spent it.
Besides the added stress, demonetisation has had a major effect on Asha's day to day life. She tries to save cash wherever possible, which means that she goes out and uses her credit card to buy household items — things that the domestic help used to get or the neighbourhood shopkeeper used to deliver to the house. "I use the money very sensibly and don't want to spend," she said.
Asha confided that she neither had the inclination nor the energy for recreational shopping. 'Sales' happen in stores but she stays put, as do the other housewives. "I don't think that can be good for the economy," she added.
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