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Indian Farmer's Apparent Suicide Sparks Political Backlash

An Indian National Congress party worker on Thursday pays tribute to Gajendra Singh, a farmer who committed suicide during a candlelight vigil in New Delhi the previous day.
Rajay Gupta
An Indian National Congress party worker on Thursday pays tribute to Gajendra Singh, a farmer who committed suicide during a candlelight vigil in New Delhi the previous day.

The apparent suicide of a farmer at a rally in central Delhi has turned into a political mud-slinging contest.

Gajendra Singh, reportedly in his 40s, was found hanging from a tree during a rally in New Delhi earlier this week. His death has quickly become a powerful symbol for disaffected and destitute farmers who oppose a government push to loosen restrictions on industrial acquisition of farmland.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party says it smells a conspiracy and the police have refused to investigate, instead blaming the death of the Rajasthan farmer on the AAP or Common Man Party. It was their rally where Singh took his life.

As details of his case emerge, the suggestion has been made that it was not the straightforward suicide of a poor farmer. Local media say Singh came from a "reasonably affluent background" and The Indian Express newspaper quotes fellow villagers as saying that Singh's fields fared better than most in a recent hailstorm. The newspaper also notes that Singh was politically active, having narrowly lost a local assembly election in 2008.

The episode has nonetheless highlighted the rising deaths among farmers who have either taken their lives or died of stress.

Debt-ridden farmers have watched this season as their fields have withered in droughts or unseasonable rains. And weaker than normal monsoons are being forecast. The government earlier announced 50 percent additional compensation for losses and eased the criteria for farmers making a claim.

But the opposition has been enlivened by the agrarian issue. After remaining quiet for most of the last year as Modi dominated the political stage in the wake of his resounding election victory, rivals have finally found voice.

The main opposition Congress party has seized on farmers' distress to attack the government and press the case that Modi is out of touch with ordinary Indians. The BJP is the party of "suits and boots," Congress stalwart Rahul Gandhi declared this week to howls of approval among opposition members of Parliament.

Modi has called the claim that he's fronting for rich industrialists an outright lie. The fact is that farmers are failing because of weather, not him, Modi says.

But the prime minister is on the defensive for trying to push through the controversial land ordinance that would facilitate industrial projects — projects his critics say make it easier for big business to acquire land and harder for people including farmers to hold on to theirs.

Modi can neither afford to alienate the agriculture sector which employs half of the country nor can he ignore the promise that brought him to power: creating jobs and refashioning the economy.

If fulfilling that pledge means clearing the way for business and industrial projects that would generate jobs, Modi appears determined to walk down that road.

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Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.