BAREILLY: This Rohilkhand town in Western Uttar Pradesh was immortalised by the hit 1966 Bollywood film song about the earring lost in Bareilly’s bazaar. In more than 50 years since no one has been able to locate the lost earring, not even the police who keep an eye on the market known as Bara Bazaar.

Time, of course, may not be of great importance to the people of Bareilly as is evident from the clock tower at one end of the bazaar – the markings are there but the hands are missing. The stern policeman sitting near the clock tower breaks into a rare smile when asked about the missing ‘jhumka’ but is certain that it was dropped in this very bazaar so many years back, albeit only in the imagination of the lyricist Raja Mehdi Ali Khan and music director Madan Mohan.

“Legend has it that one of the reasons why traffic moves so slowly in Bara Bazaar is that everyone is looking for the lost earring,” says Rajiv Aggarwal, a hotel accountant. But despite the heavy traffic made up of pedestrians, cycle rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes and scooters, business is not looking up. Like most places it has been adversely affected by the currency ban and GST. There is simmering discontent and anger against the government in the town, in the southern part of Rohilkhand and about 250 kilometres east of the Indian capital.

M. Sayeed, 57, owner of a watch shop in the market says that the zari industry has been paralysed throwing thousands of skilled workers out of jobs. “These people are left with no alternative but to drive e-rickshaws.” For him the only way out is for all anti-BJP votes to consolidate. Though Sayeed has only studied up to high school, his white beard testifies to the wisdom gathered over the many summers that he has seen.

Sri Kishen Aggarwal, 60, owns a 4-12-foot store in which he stocks a variety of goods beginning with brass idols and decorative pieces to electrical goods, utensils and kitchenware. He is of medium height with salt-and-pepper hair and is wearing a white shirt with thin stripes and a pair of dark grey trousers as he sits at his counter and attends to customers.

Sri Kishen’s speaks in two voices when it comes to his views on the performance of the government and prospects of political parties in the coming elections. On the one hand he is clearly unhappy with the government particularly because of its implementation of the currency ban which he said had virtually paralysed business though things were a little better now. He was also not happy with sitting MP and central minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar who has won from this constituency several times starting in 1989.

But on the other hand, he emphasised his support for the BJP when asked about the possible outcome of the elections. “There is a Modi wave…we have a compulsion that we will support a Hindu.” But does he have problems with Muslims? Not really, he said, adding that the two communities lived in harmony in Bareilly.

Perhaps this is an indication of the polarisation that the BJP is trying very hard to achieve. While the Congress has put up a relatively strong candidate in Praveen Aron who defeated Gangwar in 2009, the alliance candidate is Samajwadi Party’s Bhagwat Sharan Gangwar.

A large percentage of Bareilly’s population is Muslim and the influential Barelvi sect was founded in this town. About half-a-kilometre from the Bara Bazaar is the Ala Hazrat Dargah, a major Sufi shrine of the Barelvis that thousands of pilgrims visit every year particularly at the time of the annual urs which this time was at the beginning of April.

On the gate of the Dargah in the Husein Bagh area of Bareilly is made of marble on which there are carvings and decorations of flowers and leaves. Two policemen are stationed at the start of the lane that leads to the Dargah, naturally to avert trouble as there are many Hindus living in the neighbourhood too.

Afroz, 40, who runs a stall near the Dargah selling religious curio like wall hangings and embroidered caps, only reiterates the slowdown suffered by business during the past three years. Pilgrims who visit the shrine these days, he says, think many times before they buy anything. Bearing him out is a woman customer who enquires about a cap but retreats when told the priced. “Earlier in more prosperous times people would just come, order things and pay up irrespective of the amount.”

But he is extremely critical of the Wahaabis who he says are quietly spreading their tentacles in Bareilly as well despite having spent a decade in Saudi Arabia working as a mechanic. Sipping tea from a paper cup as he speaks, Afroz has wisdom way beyond the education he has received – he has studied up to class eight only. He is specially critical of the Wahaabis as they are trying to insulate the Sufi shrines from the Hindus who too visit them, thereby dealing a blow to communal harmony.

Though Afroz says that at present there is no communal tension in Bareilly, his reluctance to tell me his name reveals the undercurrent of fear that is rife in Rohilkhand.

A couple of kilometres away from the Ala Hazrat is the locality of Sailani which used to be the centre of the zari (gold and silver thread embroidery) cottage industry that has been left in shambles by the currency ban. Zamir Hussain Khan, 50, a zari worker does not even attempt hide his anger squarely putting the blame for downturn in the industry on the Modi government. He sits idle at a motorised sewing machine with no work inside a cubicle that serves as a shop. Though he claims to be completely uneducated he is fairly articulate and has worked in Rajasthan and Gujarat earlier.

He sums up the difference between the current NDA government and previous UPA one thus: “Now there is inflation but no earnings…in the time of the Congress too there was inflation but earning were much higher….so much money is being spent on the prime minister’s media publicity and foreign travel but no efforts are made to address our plight.” He is also critical of the BJP’s attempts to use the Pulwama attacks and the Balakote strikes to garner votes.

His brother Parvez, 35, nurses an even deeper resentment. An MBA, he worked as a salary manager in a private bank branch in Noida till about four years back when he and three other colleagues were forced to exit because of their faith. “The bank asked me to resign but I refused, demanding that I would leave only if they terminated my services…but they never did. They only made it impossible for me to function by denying me access to the computer systems leaving me with nothing to do… eventually I returned to Bareilly and now I run my own little business.” Their family also does farming in a village close by. It is not very difficult to guess which way their vote will not go.

The cane furniture business that Bareilly is known for has been similarly been severely affected by both currency ban and GST.

Ikrar, 50, owns a small home-based cane furniture business in Kakatola. These days only his close family members work making cane furniture. According to his cousin Akeel, who is ten years younger, says that before GST much larger quantities of furniture could be transported. “Now-a-days police will stop trucks carrying furniture and forfeit it if a GST slip is not produced… from where will we produce GST slips…we don’t even have computers.”

Traditionally minorities in Sailani and Kakatola like many other similar localities were Samajwadi Party supporters but this time they are well aware that these elections will determine the central government and their main aim is to stop the BJP-led NDA. Bareilly polls on April 23.