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India’s rural heartland turns to Modi

AFP

ALWAR: Jitendra Saini stares at the gleaming solar panels on his farm in Rajasthan, paid in large part by the ruling Congress party, as he considers who will get his vote in India’s election.
“We will be voting for Modi... because Modi knows what real development is,” said Saini, 30, as he sat on the porch of his new two-storey home with his family. Saini’s income has increased five-fold in the last three years thanks to the heavily subsidised panels which power a drip irrigation system that waters rows of lush vegetables in giant hothouses.
Extra income from the vegetables enabled Saini to build the house, send his children to good schools and buy new machinery for the farm that lies around 160 kilometres (100 miles) outside Delhi. But Saini’s declaration of support for the main opposition candidate Narendra Modi is an indicator of how popularity for Congress is ebbing away even in its rural heartland, despite its raft of pro-farmer policies during a decade in power.
On Wednesday, Congress released its manifesto for the national election that starts on April 7, pledging to pull millions more out of poverty, in a last ditch bid to win over voters. 
“The future of India is the poor people of India... they are sitting in the villages, they are sitting in the small towns and these are the people that the Congress party works for,” Congress frontman Rahul Gandhi said. Saini’s 20-hectare farm, which also grows wheat and mustard seeds, has been in the family for generations. But as he looks to the future, Saini said his family needs opportunities, not welfare programme.
“I believe that if the entire country progresses, then my family will automatically benefit and will be happy. So the country should develop first,” he said of his reasons for supporting Modi who heads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Since it was first elected in 2004, the Congress-led government has poured billions of dollars annually into rural India, home to 70 percent of the country’s poor, in guaranteed employment, cheap food, road-building and other schemes.
In 2010-2011, the government spent $18 billion alone on subsidies to help farmers produce their crops, mainly cheap fertiliser, economic research group McKinsey Global Institute said. The schemes have helped boost incomes and consumer spending in India’s nearly 600,000 villages and on farms, where 47 percent of the 485 million-strong workforce toils.
But polls show Congress, led by Rahul and his mother Sonia Gandhi, headed for a disastrous defeat at the elections which will produce a result in mid May. Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, is gaining popularity on a campaign of reviving India’s battered economy by attracting investment, accelerating development and creating jobs.
At state polls in December, the BJP toppled Congress from power in Rajasthan and won in two other largely rural states.
“No rural programmes are actually going to help Congress remain popular in rural areas this time around,” Sanjay Kumar, director of Delhi-based think tank the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told AFP.  “This myth about the BJP not being popular in rural areas might be broken at this election.” A string of corruption scandals embroiling Congress has angered mainly urban voters, but failure to curb crippling inflation that has hiked basic food prices is a major issue for rural ones.
Kumar said people also view Modi, chief minister of western Gujarat state, as a strong leader who can provide them with opportunities as they aspire for better lives for their families. “Overall, they certainly think things will improve under Modi, even though they have no details about his plans for increasing economic development.” Supporters say Modi is an efficient and incorruptible governor of Gujarat, whose pro-business style can be rolled out across India. Economic growth in Gujarat averaged 10.13 percent between 2005 and 2012, official data shows. 

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