WHEN Ishwar Chand Sharma, a farmer in northern India, committed suicide just days before the start of the country’s general elections, police found a note in his pocket with a plea: “Don’t vote for the BJP.”
While police worked to authenticate the note, Sharma’s son said his 65-year-old father blamed the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the debt that drove him to reportedly drink poison.
A mix of extreme weather, spiralling operating costs and plunging food prices has thrown millions of India’s farmers into crisis, leading to more than 300,000 suicides over the past two decades, according to government data.
As Indians vote for the lower house of parliament in a massive month-long election that ends on May 19, the plight of farmers has become a key battleground for the leading BJP and its main opposition, the Indian National Congress, or Congress.
The BJP, headed by prime minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, when its promise to improve farmers’ lives earned it a landslide victory against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
But rights groups say few farmers, who make up almost half of India’s working population, are any better off than they were before that election.
This time, said Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha farmers’ association, many are giving their votes to Congress, drawn by its manifesto focusing on the farming crisis, climate change and the environment.
“The BJP is well aware that it has antagonised the farmers,” said Dhawale.
“Congress’s manifesto inspires some hope as of now.”
One of the main complaints farmers say they have against the BJP is what they see as the party’s failure to implement the recommendations of the so-called Swaminathan Commission.
Set up by the UPA government in 2004, the commission made recommendations on how to make farming more sustainable.
They included improved access to resources such as clean water, technology and credit; a guaranteed minimum selling price for most food crops; and policies to help “drought-proof” farmers in dry regions.
But so far, no government has fully implemented the recommendations, said Satnam Singh Behru, president of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association.
Meanwhile, farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living.
Recent data from the Reserve Bank of India show that the share of loans in default in the agriculture sector has been rising since 2011.
By September 2018, the total amount of unpaid farming loans had jumped to Rs 1 trillion from around Rs 700 billion at the same time the year before.
Farmers have held several large protests in Mumbai and Delhi since the last election, calling for the government to institute the commission’s policies in full.
“The BJP government stabbed us in the back,” Behru said.
In response to the criticisms, BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said the party has taken significant steps to improve the lives of the country’s farmers over the past five years.
He pointed to the government’s announcement last year that it would institute one of the Swaminathan recommendations and raise the guaranteed minimum profit farmers make if market prices fall.
It would do that by buying crops from farmers for 50 per cent more than what it cost to produce them, he said.
“Our government has also done remarkable work on risk mitigation (for farmers),” he said.
He highlighted changes the party made to crop insurance so that farmers should now get payouts if they lose at least 30 per cent of their crops when previously the threshold was 50 per cent.
“There are still a lot of issues,” Agarwal said. “It’s a work in progress.”
In the current election, both the BJP and Congress are pledging to finally implement all of the recommendations in the Swaminathan Commission report.
But Congress has also dedicated a large part of its manifesto to a new climate action plan designed to protect and restore India’s natural resources and help farmers cope with the country’s increasingly intense droughts.
The BJP’s manifesto “is either vague or mum (silent) on climate issues,” said Indian social and environmental activist Medha Patkar.
“The Congress manifesto is somewhat deeper (because) they involved a lot of people and organisations working on environmental issues.”
Among Congress’ green campaign promises are dedicated funding to develop a state-of-the-art climate information system and to increase the share of solar and wind in India’s energy supply.
The party’s platform also includes plans to clean up water bodies and restore forests by tapping into existing legislation that guarantees people in rural areas at least 100 days of paid, unskilled work every year.
And the party wants to replace the country’s various environmental bodies with an independent Environment Protection Authority to establish and enforce environmental standards and regulations.
Congress has always been “pro-farmer,” Tariq Anwar, a member of parliament and former junior agriculture minister in the second Congress-led UPA government said in a telephone interview.
“The party has laid out a broader vision aimed at improving the lives of farmers,” he said.
There are signs that the vision is pulling in voters. Some current polls predict the BJP’s ruling alliance will beat Congress in the election, but this time only by a thin margin.
Food and agriculture policy analyst Devinder Sharma believes that to have a chance of winning Congress needs to persuade voters outside the agricultural sector that the problems facing farmers affect them too.
“Whether or not Congress’ focus on farming issues could give it a boost in the polls largely depends on the party’s success in getting the message across to the masses,” he said.
After supporting the BJP in the last election, Gurdial Singh Virk, a 58-year-old farmer from Punjab, said he is switching his vote to Congress.
He said he is not sure whether Congress will be able to live up to its promises. But he and many of the farmers he knows are desperate for something to change.
“As a prime minister, Modi has duped the farmers of the country. We will never vote for him or his party again,” he said.
“We’re not very optimistic about the Congress either, but then there are no alternatives.”