FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the National Cemetery in Seoul, South Korea, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
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 will almost certainly be reduced.
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 Uttar Pradesh.
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.
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.
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.
Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka 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.
Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Additional reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; Editing by Martin Howell & Simon Cameron-Moore—Excerpted from in.reuters