On February 21, 2017, Mumbai went to the polls to elect the 227 city councilors who would preside over an annual budget of around ₹370 billion—by far the largest of any Indian city—for the next five years. What effect did demonetization (in Hindi, notebandi) have on the ways in which this famously cash-happy city went about representing itself in a governing body?

In 2014, I published an article (Björkman 2014) that challenged popular and scholarly theories of vote buying by empirically demonstrating three things: first, that the cash that changed hands in the run-up to the 2012 Mumbai Corporation election primarily flowed not between candidates and voters (as cash-for-vote theories would have it) but rather between candidates and a variety of neighborhood leaders, businesspeople, and social workers. Second, I argued, this money was “productive and performative of sociopolitical networks that infuse everyday life far beyond election day; gifts of money . . . work much like any other gifted good in producing relations of debt and obligation” (Björkman 2014, 618). Third, cash served as the medium of election-season gifting, demonstrating that money “simultaneously constitutes a scale of value enabling commensuration and exchange while also indexing particular histories . . . that signal access to powerful networks of knowledge, resources, and authority” (Björkman 2014, 618). Given these earlier findings about the role that cash played in producing relations of representation and instantiating substantive citizenship, here I ask what implications might any cash-constricting effect of notebandi (whether actual or presumed) have had on the 2017 election?

Research conducted in February 2017 revealed a two-part notebandi effect. First, in an environment rife with rumors of notebandi-related corruption in which no one was quite certain how much cash anyone else might actually be able to marshal, the question of whether and how this or that candidate was cash-flush was both a subject of popular speculation and a staple of campaign speeches. Candidates across the ideological spectrum accused India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of self-interest in the timing and manner of demonetization, while city journalists eagerly reported on rumors of collusion. “How come the BJP is flush with money in times of notebandi?” one English-language daily quoted the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party leader Raj Thackeray as saying, intimating that the BJP was flooding candidates’ campaign coffers with cash. That it is impossible to verify these sorts of accusations is hardly the point.

What is more telling is how, in the context of notebandi, certain things were interpreted as indices of access to cash. “Signs of the city BJP’s munificence can be seen everywhere,” grumbled a Shiv Sena party worker, citing big-ticket items like resplendent newspaper ads. Yet notwithstanding the equation of the BJP’s glossy ads with the machinations of notebandi-related corruption, the Shiv Sena’s own leadership did not seek to distance itself from spectacular expenditure but rather sought to keep pace. On one particular day, for instance, all of the city’s Hindi, English, and Marathi dailies arrived with a Shiv Sena pamphlet tucked into the pages. If ostentatious ads and hired operatives indexed access to cash, then all of the city’s major parties eagerly sought to perform their virtuosity in this signifying practice.

A second aspect of the notebandi effect had to do with precisely what this demonstrated access to cash might signify. While candidates from all major parties were keen to demonstrate that their own networks had enabled them to deftly manage any cash-flow problems, my research found that for some candidates cash was indeed in short supply. In such instances, candidates enlisted other semiotic vehicles—in place of cash—to do the work of demonstrating good connections to the networks and resources to which voters wanted to know that their would-be representatives had access. Cash exchange and gifting, in other words, was only one among many ways in which these relational ties were produced, instantiated, and performed. Cash-strapped candidates employed a variety of creative practices to perform cash-like spectacles: one journalist friend recounted how a major-party candidate had complained to him that, without funds to pay for even the requisite post-rally biryani feast, he had borrowed ₹14,000 from a neighborhood tailor.

Local businesses also played an important role in assembling crowds for the parades that filled Mumbai’s streets on the final day of campaigning. As my research from 2012 demonstrated, cash payments for the labor of rally participation are generally made to the person who assembles a group of participants. Under the cash constraints of 2017, however, a common practice was for a candidate to forge an agreement with area manufacturers to “borrow” a group of laborers for the day. This exchange was made on the promise not of future cash repayment, but rather on the promise of future “help”—interceding with the municipal authorities in the event of some infrastructural breakdown, or sorting out an industrial or commercial license renewal (a perennial problem given the legal-institutional vagaries characterizing so much of Mumbai’s economy).

Notwithstanding popular discourse equating visible campaign expenditures with notebandi-related corruption, then, candidates from all of the major parties were eager to appear cash-flush and thus to demonstrate their access to powerful networks and resources. Candidates sought to disguise any actual cash shortage by producing cash-like spectacles via borrowing, promising, and relationship building—relational work, that is, by means of which political representation in contemporary Mumbai is crafted.


Björkman, Lisa. 2014. “‘You can’t buy a vote’: Meanings of Money in a Mumbai Election.” American Ethnologist 41, no. 4: 617–34.