RAJUR, India — The cotton fields in this expanse of central India are parched and fallow, spreading to the horizon in shades of brown and beige. When the rains come, the farmers will begin their annual gamble — hoping for good weather, hardy crops and decent prices.
When Vaishali Yede was newly married, her husband walked into these fields one October afternoon and drank pesticide. The crop was poor, and he had debts he could not repay. He became one of tens of thousands of farmers to die by suicide in India over the past decade, a grim trend that shows no signs of abating.
But this year Yede did something unprecedented: The 28-year-old mother of two mounted a campaign for a seat in India’s Parliament. Her bid for office symbolizes the deep discontent in rural areas, where most of India’s more than 1.3 billion people live.
That dissatisfaction could determine the outcome of India’s national poll, which concludes next week. Polls suggest that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will win reelection over an invigorated opposition, but rural voters — whose views tend to show up less in surveys and in the media — have upended electoral predictions in the past.
“Modi said that he will change everything, but what has he changed, except for building roads?” Yede asked on a recent morning as the heat began to build in her tiny home. “So many suicides are still happening.”
Yede’s campaign was not only a rebuke to Modi but to the hierarchies of class and gender that structure Indian politics. The idea that someone like herself — a poor woman who faces social stigma as a widow and works as an agricultural laborer and seamstress — could run for office defied her own expectations.
“Even if I lose, I don’t mind,” she said. “If because of me, women farmers get some courage, I will have succeeded.”
Agriculture remains a linchpin of India’s economy, accounting for about 17 percent of total output and employing more than 250 million people. It is a sector that can boast of successes such as the Green Revolution, which used new planting and irrigation techniques to turn India — once prone to famine — into an exporter of wheat and rice.
But now Indian agriculture faces a host of challenges as legions of farmers with small holdings become more integrated into the global economy and struggle with environmental change. The costs of inputs such as seeds, energy and fertilizer, are rising, while prices of major crops have plunged in recent years, forcing farmers to take on debt.
The past five years have proved particularly difficult, with two years of drought in a large swath of the country followed by the Modi government’s decision to withdraw most of the country’s currency from circulation in a bid to curb corruption. The step immobilized the cash-driven rural economy and came just as many farmers were selling their hard-earned crops and buying supplies for the next harvest.
Yogendra Yadav, the leader of a new farmers movement, likened the state of Indian agriculture under previous governments to that of a hospital patient. “The achievement of Mr. Modi is that he pushed that patient into the ICU,” Yadav said.
Yede lives in a region called Vidarbha, an area in the state of Maharashtra infamous for farmer suicides. Farmers here rely on rain rather than irrigation and depend on a single growing season. The majority of holdings are small plots of fewer than five acres. The cotton grown in the region was once known as “white gold” for the high prices it fetched at market, said Vijay Jawandhia, a farmer leader who has cultivated the crop since the 1970s.
Now the costs of cultivation are increasing, he said, as are the costs of living. “The gap between the rural and urban economies is increasing tremendously,” Jawandhia said. “The policy of agriculture in our country is produce and perish.” There is “huge anger” about the failure of the Modi government to improve the situation, he added, but he said that voters don’t trust the opposition parties, either.
On a recent morning, Yede was crouched on the floor next to two gas burners, lifting chopped greens out of a bowl into a blackened vessel over a roaring blue flame. In another bowl, the first-time parliamentary candidate began mixing flour and water to make chapatis as she described her journey toward politics.
She married at 18 in an arranged match between families of the same caste. Her husband, Sudhakar, liked to cook — everything from vegetable dishes to fried sweets — and they had two children. One month after the birth of her second child, a girl, via C-section, Yede was convalescing at her parents’ home in a nearby village. Her husband came to see her one morning and told her he wasn’t feeling well. It was the last time she saw him.
Yede’s husband was one of 14,000 people employed in agriculture to die by suicide in 2011, according to official nationwide figures. In 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, the same figure was 12,600.
Yede later learned Sudhakar had accumulated about $2,500 in debt, some of which she paid off after his death. The ensuing years were absorbed by “daily struggles,” she said, including friction with her in-laws. Eventually she joined a local women’s group and later met a playwright who wanted to stage a drama about the experiences of farm widows. After performing in the lead role, Yede was invited to make a brief address at a statewide literary festival in January before thousands of people — which, heart pounding, she did.
Omprakash “Bacchu” Kadu, a member of the state legislature who leads a local party focused on farmer issues, asked Yede to run under his party’s banner in March. Initially she refused — poor people like her did not become candidates, she reasoned. Kadu persisted, and with the blessing of her parents, Yede decided to try.
“Why should only rich people run for elections?” Kadu said. “We wanted to break this trend.”
Yede campaigned from dawn until dark, holding 60 public meetings and fielding a litany of voter complaints, from a lack of water to rampant alcoholism.
Yede’s mother, a quiet woman named Chandrakala Dhote, went door to door in her village of Dongarkharda soliciting votes. Her father, Manikrao, became an unofficial campaign adviser: In his pocket he carries a folded paper with the number of registered voters for each booth in the village.
“She is a widow and a poor woman of the village,” said Nischal Thakre, the elected leader of Dongarkharda. “It has never happened before, and people are very emotional about it.”
Despite Yede’s efforts, she is expected to lose when the results are announced on May 23. The incumbent is a candidate from the Shiv Sena, an ally of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the main rival is from the opposition Congress Party.
But Yede — with the confidence of a politician — said she still hopes for victory. “I have eaten into the votes of both main candidates,” she said, eyes shining. “I have rattled them.”
Jaideep Hardikar contributed to this report.