By Zeba Siddiqui, Rajendra Jadhav and Mayank Bhardwaj
MANDSAUR/NAGPUR/AYODHYA, India (Reuters) – Many farmers in three big states in the Indian heartland voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his strong record on national security, but they expect him to address their problems of weak incomes and heavy debt in his second term.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept northern and western India and advanced in the east to win a bigger majority in parliament than 2014, overcoming complaints of hardship in the countryside where two-thirds of Indians live.
Nearly half the country’s 1.3 billion people are employed in the farming sector which has suffered because of falling product prices and rising input prices such as diesel.
But as tensions escalated with arch foe Pakistan over an attack in disputed Kashmir, with Modi sending warplanes across the border to raid what he said was a suspected militant camp, many voters saw that as a bold strike on a difficult neighbour and were willing to look past personal concerns, they said.
“We have been in trouble over the last few years due to erratic weather and lower crop prices. We were not happy with the government,” said 60-year-old Mahsaram Kothale, who grows cotton in Maharashtra state’s Nagpur district.
“But when it comes to national security, we set aside personal interest. We need a leader who can teach Pakistan a lesson that even next generations will remember.”
The BJP and its allies won 44 parliament seats from Maharashtra of the 48 at stake.
Two years ago, Anandi Lal, a wheat farmer in central Madhya Pradesh state, was so incensed with the Modi government and his falling income that he joined protests that turned violent.
Police opened fire on the demonstrators in Mandsaur, killing six and further fuelling anger. But on Thursday, as the election results were released after the world’s biggest democratic exercise, Lal said he had voted for Modi because there was nobody tougher.
“I can’t think of anything good he has done for farmers in five years,” said Lal. “But we need a strong leader like him.”
Sitting on a bamboo cot outside his mud home, Lal spoke glowingly about the airstrikes in Pakistan in February, which India claimed targeted a militant camp and killed hundreds of “terrorists” – although it hasn’t provided proof, and Pakistan denies the claims.
But Lal and many others in the rural areas said they were convinced many terrorists had been killed.
“If it wasn’t for Modi, we would not be able to fight back so strongly,” Lal said.
Modi campaigned on a platform of muscular nationalism and painted his rivals as soft on Pakistan and pursuing a policy of appeasing India’s minority Muslims. The BJP’s big wins show support from across the Hindu community regardless of caste, pollsters said.
Others said they were pleased with Modi’s programme to build toilets and homes for the poor. The Modi government has said around 90 million toilets were constructed under its ‘Clean India’ programme.
Women were especially supportive of another Modi scheme to provide free cooking gas connections, a precious facility for millions in the hinterlands who depended on hazardous solid fuels.
“I had to inhale fumes from wood and coal,” said Savita Devi on the outskirts of northern India’s Ayodhya city. Another voter in Mandsaur, Munni Bai, said she had to walk miles to collect wood for cooking before she benefited from the scheme.
Now that he has a new term in office, Modi should address their concerns, farmers said.
“In the first term, Modi didn’t pay attention to farmers’ problems,” said Mahsaram Kothale, a 60-year-old cotton farmer from the western Nagpur district.
“This time we hope he will try to increase our incomes.”
(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui in MANDSAUR, Rajendra Jadhav in NAGPUR, and Mayank Bhardwaj in AYODHYA; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)