PEMDARA, India (Reuters) - Bleeding support in the countryside because of falling farm incomes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could still persuade just enough rural voters to give him a second term after ordering an air strike inside Pakistan last month.
How rural India votes will be crucial to the outcome of a general election that must be held by May. Nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people live in the towns and villages in the countryside.
Just a few weeks ago, and following defeats in three major state elections in December, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appeared set for big losses among those rural communities.
But the wave of nationalism unleashed by the confrontation with mostly Muslim Pakistan could potentially salvage enough seats to make a difference, although the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, will almost certainly be reduced.
Bandu Belkar, a 34-year-old farmer from Maharashtra who voted for the Hindu nationalist BJP in the 2014 general election, said he was unhappy with the government’s apathetic behavior toward farming and had almost made up his mind to vote for the opposition Congress this time.
“But after the air strikes, I have changed my mind. We need a strong leader like Modi to defeat Pakistan,” said Belkar as he watched a news clip on his phone in Pemdara village, nearly 200 km east of Mumbai.
Belkar’s change of heart comes despite the heavy losses he has suffered due to collapsing prices for the onions and tomatoes he grows.
A glut in production of many of India’s staple foods has led to a sharp decline in prices, badly hitting the rural economy in large states such as Maharashtra and northern Uttar Pradesh.
In a neighboring village, vegetable farmer Ramkisan Dhavale said he will vote for Modi “if he teaches a lesson to Pakistan”.
“I can keep personal interests aside and vote for Modi if he does something decisive for our country’s security,” added Dhavale, whose cousin serves in the Indian army.
Indian villages have traditionally served as recruitment camps for the armed forces, driven in part by family history and a lack of employment opportunities.
Pollsters say Modi and the BJP stand to benefit from his aggressive response to a suicide bomb attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in the disputed Kashmir region on Feb. 14.
India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale claimed Indian warplanes on Feb 26 killed “a very large number of terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis” in a camp run by Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in northeastern Pakistan. JeM had claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.
Opinion polls conducted before the tensions with Pakistan escalated had forecast that the BJP would struggle to win a majority because of a slowing economy, low rural incomes and the government’s failure to boost job growth.
But an opinion poll conducted by India TV-CNX after the air strikes forecast that the BJP could win 41 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
That is still well below the 73 seats the BJP won in 2014, but it is 12 seats more than predicted by a poll conducted before the air strikes.
If the poll is correct, it must presage some recovery in support for the BJP in the countryside, as more than three-quarters of people in India’s most populous state live in rural areas.
Social media such as Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger service as well as television news networks have further fanned nationalist sentiment throughout the country, including its less well connected villages.
“National security will not completely displace bread-and-butter issues like the economic, employment, and welfare,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior research fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “But it will jockey for space in the electoral limelight.”
The patriotic turn by some farmers doesn’t mean that the misery of the past couple of years is forgotten.
Of 49 farmers Reuters spoke to in person or by phone in the past eight days in the states of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, only 18 said they would vote for the BJP.
Farmers’ anger over falling crop prices was factor behind the BJP’s defeat in three major state elections in December, and that anger hasn’t gone away.
In recent months they’ve staged protests, blocked highways and dumped onions on the road after prices plunged to as low as one rupee (1.4 U.S. cents) per kg for a crop that costs about 8 rupees a kg to produce.
“How will the air strike help me make money?” said Sunil Dere, a 49-year-old farmer from Wadgaon Amli village, 250 km (155.34 miles) east of India’s financial capital of Mumbai.
“Modi hasn’t done anything for farmers in the past four years,” Dere added, as he fed his sheep with onions that had become too cheap to take to market.
Rajaram Navle, a farmer from a neighboring village, said even now Modi’s government was not paying heed to farmers’ concerns.
“Due to drought there is scarcity of fodder but the government is not opening enough ‘cattle camps’,” said Navle, who tills a five-acre (two-hectare) plot in western Maharashtra.
India’s Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka states received lower than normal rainfall in 2018, wilting crops and creating water scarcity, and cattle owners want more camps where they can leave their animals to receive free fodder and water.
“If the farmer is unhappy because of his economic situation not being good, I don’t see how the air strikes will ease that,” said Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor at Canada’s Carleton University.
The effect of air strikes could wane in a fortnight or month unless there is further escalation between the nuclear armed rivals, Dehejia said.
In a bid to placate farmers, the Modi government offered direct cash support of an annual 6,000 Indian rupees ($86) to 120 million poor farmers and allocated more funds for a rural jobs guarantee scheme. But farmers said the measures weren’t enough.
“Government is giving 2,000 rupees in first installment, which is not sufficient even to plow an acre of land,” said farmer Dere.
($1 = 70.0050 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Martin Howell & Simon Cameron-Moore