MUZAFFARNAGAR: A Pandit astrologer comes up as we stood talking to a group of people on the road in Muzaffarnagar. “This notebandi has destroyed us, I have not seen a 100 rupee note for the past two months. I used to earn at least Rs 400 a day but it has all gone. We will now make sure that the BJP is stripped and humiliated in these elections.”

Did you vote for the BJP in the last elections?

“Yes I did, and that was my mistake. This time we will teach the party a lesson.”

All around him nod assent. Who will you vote for then? “Anyone but the BJP,” he declares. And then adds, “Akhilesh is a good boy, he has done a lot of work, he seems sincere.”

The two sentiments expressed by the ageing astrologer reverberate through Muzaffarnagar town. In 2013 it was a ghost town, terrified, with villages emptied not just of the victim Muslim community but the Jats as well who had gone into hiding for fear of arrest. The Muslims had fled for their lives in the thousands. In 2015 levels of normalcy had returned, but the tensions between the two communities were palpable. There was suspicion, and fear.

In 2017 Muzaffarnagar is transformed. Demonetisation has been the big leveller, and has broken the ice between the two communities even as it has crippled the people. Hundreds of local businesses have closed down, migrant workers have left, local workers are all lying jobless, staring at a future without hope. An old man clutching a prescription and medicines comes by. “We are finished,” he says. “I was a daily wager, I am too ill to work now. My two sons were working as daily wagers and now they are without jobs.”

A BJP that has been trying to convince India, with the help of the media, that demonetisation has been welcomed by the poor, honest, hardworking people of the country need to camp in Muzaffarnagar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too needs to step down from the dais and walk the crowded narrow streets of this town to see just precisely what demonetisation has done to the people.

Every single person, regardless of whether he was a BJP or a SP or a BSP voter ---Congress is not even mentioned in passing---hits out at demonetisation. Every single person has been hit, and the anger has turned into a huge negative response for the BJP. So much so that the Jats and the Muslim have united, and for the first time since 2013 were seen together in groups, exchanging banter even as they spoke out against PM Modi and demonetisation. An example: as we stood speaking to a few Muslims, one of them shouted out to a few men standing nearby, “come here” and as the young men approached all laughed. The man who had called out told us, “speak to them, they will tell you, they were all with Modiji before, now ask them.” The young Jats laughed too, and then went on to say that no one will be voting for the BJP because “this notebandi has finished us”, and because “PM Modi lied to us”, and because, “the government has not met its promise of reservations.”

The Muslims were not talking about the violence earlier insisting that all was well. The Jats when asked said that they had been misled, and that this would not happen now. And both spoke in unison about how badly their lives and their homes had been impacted by notebandi as it is referred to all over the western UP districts.

Notebandi and development is the theme, and the binder for the erstwhile warring communities. One of the Jat farmers from a village in the district said, “all the Muslims who worked in our land have gone away. This was a big mistake, we were all misled. Now they live elsewhere, and we do not have people working with us. I have been to them asking them to come back.”

In a shop selling flowers for the temple, the owner with a tilak on his forehead was a former BJP supporter but badly hit by notebandi. He said that his business was now not even one fourth of what it was before. At the back of the shop were two men weaving the garlands, both clearly Muslims. They also joined in when he insisted they should, both speaking for Akhilesh Yadav while the owner listened, nodding every now and again.

This was a bonhomie visible all over Muzaffarnagar where notebandi has clearly brought new unity but in a manner that clearly the BJP has not envisaged. The arguments on the streets by the common folk facing deep economic distress will put some economists to shame. A young man whose canvas luggage shop----remember these are all small tiny businesses dependent on daily earnings---is now earning just one fourth of what it did before said that the impact of this notebandi will be felt for the next 20 years. A man standing next to him nodded assent and left the group muttering, “Hitler.” A farmer from a village in the district joined others to decry notebandi, and as the conversation became heated and passionate broke his silent with, “you know about Mohammad bin Tughlaq.” Astounded we nodded assent, and smiling broadly he went on his way.

The most vocal groups against notebandi were the Jats and the Muslims in Muzaffarnagar. It did not need any persuasion to make them talk, with the Jats insisting that they were determined to defeat the BJP and teach it a lesson, and the Muslims clearly encouraged also joining in vociferously. Notebandi has clearly driven away the fear that stalked this town since 2013.