The Bharatiya Janata Party’s national spokesman Srikant Sharma has had a difficult time. If he first had to defend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise high denomination notes, he now has to try and stay away from any public discourse on notebandi in Mathura, the constituency he is contesting from on the BJP ticket.

Neither in his public meetings nor in his interactions with voters does he say anything in defence of Modi’s November 8 decision. Yet, the powerful community of traders and small businessmen, still nursing their wounds caused by the demonetisation, is not ready to spare him in his constituency that goes to polls on February 11, the first of the seven-phase Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

“Srikant Sharma is like Narendra Modi,” said Sudhir Singh Faujdar, president of Mathura district’s brick kiln owners’ association. “Both say one thing and mean something else. Since my childhood I have been working for the BJP. In 2014, we worked hard and helped them form the government at centre. But they tried to destroy us. It is our turn now. Wait for the result. They will know what we can do,” he added.

Faujdar’s warning is not without basis. Until the decision to ban currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 started alienating traders and small businessmen, traditionally the core constituency of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political outfit, the BJP, Mathura was considered a safe seat for the saffron outfit.

Since 1989, the BJP has remained a powerful force in the constituency, representing it four times in the state Assembly. Though Congress has been defeating the BJP for last three elections in Mathura (2002, 2007 and 2012), the victory margin has always been low. In 2012 Assembly election, the BJP lost Mathura to Congress by a very thin margin of 501 votes. Thereafter the BJP’s revival began, and in 2014, its candidate Hema Malini won Mathura Lok Sabha seat (Mathura is one of the five Assembly segment of this Lok Sabha seat) by a huge margin of over three lakh votes.

Widespread resentment

“Till Modi’s demonetisation decision wreaked havoc, Mathura seemed a sure seat for the BJP,” said a local journalist Mafatlal Agrawal, himself a member of the trading community. “But after that the situation changed. Traders have boycotted Srikant Sharma. Even if he has gone silent on demonetisation decision, no member from my community wants to be associated with him,” he added.

Though the resentment in the community is widespread, not too many traders and small businessmen muster enough courage to publicly declare their change of heart. Often they talk only on the condition of anonymity or express their indignation in a vague manner without taking the name of the RSS or the BJP.

“The demonetisation helped no one and shattered our entire business,” said Jagat Narayan Agrawal, a shoe manufacturer and exporter, the general secretary of Rashtriya Charm Udyog Vyapar Sangathan and the vice president of the UP unit of Vaishya Ekta Parishad.

“The new thinking in our community is that instead of backing one party we should develop elected representatives belonging to our own community,” revealed Agrawal. “We have realized that total dependence on one party carries the risk of encouraging the party to become indifferent to us. We have, therefore, decided to break this. The result will start becoming visible in the next Assembly and Lok Sabha elections,” he added.

Core supporters

Traders and small businessmen have traditionally been core supporters of the BJP primarily because of their ardent faith in what has appeared to be the saffron outfit’s crusade for “Hindu Rashtra”. Though demonetisation may not have stripped the community of its obsession with the Hindu communal project, the idea that this notion of crusade is full of humbug is fast gaining ground in a large section of traders and small businessmen jolted by the shock of note-ban.

No doubt, there are still a large number of people – mostly the hardcore members of the RSS and the BJP – given solely to the BJP’s project of “Hindu Rashtra”, but their number is shrinking as the realisation has grown that their passion for Modi’s crusade might end up consuming their entire business.

The churning is not restricted to Mathura alone. Reports of traders and small businessmen leaving the BJP and joining its political rivals have been pretty frequent in the days after demonetisation.

On February 6, for example, the national president of BJP’s Akhil Bharatiya Vyapar Mahasabha, Sanjay Agrawal, met Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and formally joined Samajwadi Party. “I grew up in the RSS family and worked all my life for the BJP. But the demonetisation decision of Modi government made me change my approach to the BJP as it has done to hundreds and thousands of other members of my community,” Agrawal told over phone. “Now our sole objective is to work for the defeat of the BJP,” he added.

Similarly, on February 7, Navin Gupta, president of the BJP-backed Samyukta Vyapar Sangh, was seen sharing the dais with Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi as they addressed a joint rally at Meerut.

The churning among traders and small businessmen is likely to have significant bearing in the urban constituencies of Uttar Pradesh, which are considered a stronghold of the BJP. Thus, out of 73 Assembly seats which are going to polls in the first phase, the BJP had won 11 in 2012, and nine of them are urban constituencies, where the community has so far played a pivotal role in the saffron outfit’s victory.

Unless new social segments are added to its vote base, the flight of traders and small businessmen may prove costly for the BJP, not only in Mathura but also in the party’s other urban strongholds in Uttar Pradesh.