Ambadas Palve, 65, squinted against the sun’s glare and began to recite a list of the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s achievements under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Palve was among a clutch of farmers from Mehekari village in western Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district had gathered at a crossroads early in the morning on April 22 to deliver their daily supply of milk to the local dairy. Palve, a BJP worker, had waited impatiently for people sympathetic to other parties to finish speaking.

Mehekari village is part of the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seat, which will vote on April 23.

Modi, Palve said, had brought cheap gas under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, had kept Pakistan in check with surgical strikes, and had constructed free houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. But when Palve began to discuss milk prices and cited a figure a few rupees higher than the region’s standard rate, Kisan Berad, a BJP worker from a neighbouring village interrupted him.

“Which dairy are you selling your milk to that you’re getting Rs 25 [per litre]?” Berad asked heatedly. “Everyone else is getting Rs 17 or Rs 18.”

Palve persisted. “The BJP government is very good,” he said. “Everybody wants Modi as prime minister.”

“Your own son is in the police,” Berad noted. “You know what that Sadhvi [Pragya Thakur, accused of conspiring to set off the 2008 Malegaon blasts in Maharashtra] said about [Anti-Terrorist Squad head] Hemant Karkare and the police.” Thakur, the BJP candidate for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, claimed last week that Karkare, who was killed by a terrorist during the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, had died because she had cursed him.

Asked Berad, “Don’t you feel any shame in supporting people like that?”

The argument had played out with Palve saying that he had received Rs 2,000 under the Centre’s PM-Kisan scheme for small and marginal farmers and Berad retorting that he must have been the only person in the entire district to get it.

Berad explained his awkward position of being a BJP worker even as he criticised it. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “This is my own government, but I can tell you that it is not working to the benefit of farmers.”

Until 2014, Berad was a member of the Nationalist Congress Party, but then joined the BJP, which current rules Maharashtra in a coalition with the Shiv Sena. For the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and Shiv Sena will battle an alliance of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party.

Five years later, Berad is regretting the switch.

“We are sad that Modi and Shah are running the government alone,” Berad said. “If you make a report about what they have done in the last five years, farm input costs have risen, he has done nothing about black money, there is no market for our goods. If you make a promise you should keep it. That is the only way to make history.”

Ambadas Palve (centre) has faith in the BJP. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Shifting loyalties

Berad is not alone in his shifting loyalties. Most significantly, Sujay Vikhe-Patil, the son of Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, the Congress Leader of Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, switched to the BJP in March. He jumped ship after the Nationalist Congress Party refused to cede Ahmednagar’s Lok Sabha ticket to the Congress.

Even as Vikhe-Patil’s departure left the Congress embarrassed, a large swathe of political workers who had left the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in 2014 after the Lok Sabha election results are now switching back to the two parties. A significant reason is their perception of the BJP’s lacklustre performance on the agriculture front.

Their anger, however, is targeted far more sharply at BJP chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, than at Prime Minister Modi. Fadnavis, said most of these dairy farmers, had artificially reduced prices by promoting milk from Gujarat.

A hundred kilometres away from Mehekari, in Ahmednagar’s Rahata block, is Puntamba. This village, which comes under the Shirdi Lok Sabha constituency, was where farmers first declared in 2017 that they would hold a strike from June 1 to June 10 unless they got better rates for their produce.

During that strike, farmers, largely from western Maharashtra, emptied milk onto the roads and refused to take vegetables to the markets, cutting off supplies briefly to major cities such as Pune, Nashik and Mumbai. The idea of a strike soon spread to other states. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, police shot five farmers in Mandsaur in June that year as they participated in protests. The deaths, triggered agitations across the country.

Sudhakar Jadhav is a former sarpanch of Puntamba. Like others, he joined the BJP in October 2014. The party, however, has not lived up to his expectations and he has now returned to the Congress. When asked what he thought about the government, he gave a long list of all Fadnavis’s broken promises. Only when asked about whether the Centre had done better did he mention Modi.

“In the last five years, whatever decisions the Central government has taken has not been for us [farmers],” he said. He then listed the promises Modi had made in 2014, this time covering Hindutva issues such as building the Ram Mandir and repealing Article 370 which gives autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir..

“None of these things have happened,” Jadhav said. “In 2014, he spoke about development as well. Now, it’s only religion and caste, and he has not been able to deliver even on that. Because of Modi, the relationship between communities has soured. He gave this Sadhvi [Pragya Singh Thakur] a seat. He no longer raises important issues which concern us.”

Back in Mehekari, other farmers expressed their disappointment with the outcome of the protests. “There have been so many strikes for onion prices,” said Raghunath Sanap, 60, a farmer from Mehekari. “Did anything happen? No. Now elections have come so close, that is why they are promising Rs 2,000 [under PM-Kisan]. Only political workers will say they are 100% certain that this party will come. The rest of us are split.”

Shirdi Lok Sabha constituency votes on April 29.

Protest impact

Jadhav, like several others in his village, participated both in 2016’s Maratha morchas demanding reservations for people from that community in educational institutions and government jobs. He also joined the farmer strike and protests the following year. Puntamba continued its agitation until very recently.

Early in February, three young women, led by Nikita Jadhav, daughter of Kisan Kranti Morcha convenor Dhananjay Jadhav, went on a hunger strike to press the demands for a full farm loan waiver and better prices for crops. On the sixth day, Jadhav and others in the village said, around 300 police officials descended on the village just before dawn and forcibly took the women to hospital. They were discharged later that day. (Rahul Dwivedi, District Collector of Ahmednagar, said that the arrests were effected late in the evening and that only three or four police officers were present, all of whom were women.)

The arrests have turned sentiment in the village firmly against the BJP, as even veteran party supporters are unhappy at how “our girls” had been handled.

Pratap Wahade is a long-time worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He joined the BJP, he said, when the party had only 12 members in the district. The police detained him for six days after he scuffled with them when they broke up the hunger strike. He was categorical in saying that Modi had failed farmers.

Milk prices were low, he said, only around 10% of the village had received farm loan waivers and no real changes had come from their protests. Wahade owns an acre of land, but abandoned farming around seven years ago because of consistent water shortages. He now runs a sari shop in the village.

Despite all this, he still said that he supported the BJP.

“No matter how angry I am with the government, I can’t leave the BJP because it is ours,” he said. “As long as the RSS supports it, I will too. I have grown with this party, so no matter what it does, I will back it.”

Pratap Wahade continues to canvass on behalf of the RSS, even after police under a BJP government detained him in jail for six days. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Actual politics

Apart from the ideological drifters who switch parties every few election seasons, there are as ever the die-hard political supporters.

Ajinath Andale, 43, from Mehekari, runs a cattle camp for the village so that cows and buffaloes have access to fodder and water in this drought-hit region. He confidently said that the BJP would win by a margin of 2 lakh votes. Asked whether people would be enthusiastic about a candidate who had so recently left the Congress, Andale said they would. “If the BJP nominates even a dog, we will vote for him,” Andale said. “That is how loyal we are.”

Other BJP supporters were less open about their beliefs. Jeur village, which comes under the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha constituency, is dominated by the Nationalist Congress Party.

“We can talk only about our candidate,” said a BJP worker who asked not to be identified and then ended the conversation abruptly. “We know our candidate is good and well educated. If we say anything about the other candidate, anything might happen to us.” He implied that those who spoke against the Nationalist Congress Party in the village were frequently met with violence.

Dairy farmers in Ahmednagar are upset that milk prices have fallen under the present government. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

The “other candidate” is the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sangram Jagtap, son of Arun Jagtap and son-in-law of the BJP’s Shivajirao Kardile. Several believe that Kardile is not pleased with Vikhe-Patil and has asked his supporters to work covertly for Jagtap. Jagtap and Kardile were both implicated, but not charged, in the murder of a Shiv Sena worker in Ahmednagar last year.

Rafik Sheikh, who runs a shop in Jeur and works for Aamir Khan’s Pani Foundation, was one of the few in that village who spoke openly and cynically.

“Supporting NCP [Nationalist Congress Party] is like supporting Modi anyway,” Sheikh said. “Pawar has not gone against Modi in speeches before this. He has even supported Modi. There is no difference in whom we vote for here.”

Ahmednagar is in the grip of a drought. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).