In the nearly two weeks since the terrorist attack at Pulwama, which led to the killing of 40 security personnel, there has been a build-up along both sides of the international border. The war of words between the two countries has ratcheted up and expectations are rife about an imminent Indian retaliation to Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism. Similarly, the downside risks of this confrontation escalating into a bigger conflict, too, are gaining ground. The attack and the subsequent build-up have undoubtedly put India’s armed forces in the national spotlight; almost everyone in the country is rallying around them.

At the same time, on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially rolled out the ambitious PM-Kisan scheme in Gorakhpur; the scheme, which looks to provide income support to the small farmer, is estimated to cost the national exchequer upwards of 75,000 crore annually. This fiscal palliative comes in the backdrop of continued unrest among farmers struggling to cope with rural distress, which was brought about due to a combination of factors: Collapse in the prices of farm products, drought in some regions of the country and the shrinking number of non-farm jobs in rural India. All of a sudden, political parties are scrambling to take up the pole position on the issues plaguing the Indian farmer.

Take the two together, especially in the context of the forthcoming electoral showdown, and it is clear that 53 years after Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, in equally extenuating circumstances, coined the phrase, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (Salute to the Soldier, Salute to the Farmer), it is back in play. Then, like now, India was attacked by Pakistan (just that this time it has employed a home-grown terrorist to carry out their bidding), even as India’s farm sector was facing a crisis—but entirely different from what is prevailing right now. Up against an inclement challenge, PM Shastri coined the slogan to rally the people. It did resonate with the Pakistan attack repulsed by the Indian defence forces and Indian farmers managing to hold on their own.

Fast forward another five decades and a similar narrative seems to be playing out all over again. Over the last six months, the Union government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been fending off a barrage of high-decibel corruption allegations levelled by Congress president Rahul Gandhi with respect to the contract on acquisition of Rafale aircraft from France.

Despite the rejection of these allegations, first by the Supreme Court and later by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Gandhi continued to level these charges—even as the government, equally vehemently, denied these charges. This obviously brought the entire defence preparedness of the country under public scrutiny; the Pulwama attacks and the near-war like build-up has only accentuated this focus.

On the other hand, Indian farming has been going through exceptionally tough circumstances. It has provided perfect political fodder to the opposition parties. In fact, it was a key factor in the recent rounds of elections to state assemblies. While the BJP was able to hold off the Congress in Gujarat, it lost in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—the Congress with its promise of loan waivers tilted the electoral scales in its favour.

Thereafter, farm distress has come to occupy centre stage in electoral politics.

With the country readying for the next general election, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rolled out a nationwide income support scheme, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, for farmers in the interim Union budget presented on 1 February. Going by the body language of the opposition, it seems to be resonating with the farmers. However, it will have to be seen whether the scheme, which entails a direct benefit transfer of 6,000 for every farmer owning less than 2 hectares, actually provides the desired electoral advantage to the BJP.

Regardless, it is clear that PM Modi has already started shaping his electoral narrative around the slogan of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan. We will have to wait till 16 May, when the election results are declared, to figure out whether this was indeed the defining slogan of the 17th general election.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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