NEW DELHI - As the populous state of Uttar Pradesh gears up for elections, a key question for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is whether farmer protests that have gained momentum in the past year can undercut its efforts to return to power.
Over the weekend, thousands of farmers gathered in Muzaffarnagar city in a show of strength against what they said were farmer-unfriendly laws that hurt their livelihood and reduced their bargaining power against private retailers.
Leaders of farm unions warned that they would escalate protests and ensure the defeat of the state's BJP government in the upcoming elections if their demands were not met.
Analysts said that the discontent has the potential to snowball into a major issue in the state polls, due in five months. In India, 60 per cent of the population is connected to farming either directly or indirectly.
"I wouldn't undermine the importance of the farm laws issue. I think definitely it has the potential to be on the front line of issues. At the end of the day, it will depend on how persuasive the argument is from both sides (the BJP and the farm unions)," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor at Jagran Lakecity University. "I'm sure the BJP would need a strategy to be able to deal with it. "
A Times of India editorial noted: "The party still holds many cards. But farm protests show India's fractious electoral politics can create difficulties for anyone."
It said that the huge crowds at the farmers' rally "are not to be dismissed".
Over the last 10 months, farmers in Haryana, Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan have been protesting, including at border points into capital city Delhi, against the farm laws passed last year.
The legislation is aimed at encouraging farmers to sell their produce directly to private companies instead of regulated wholesale markets, where cartels and middlemen are known to have taken root.
It allows farmers to sell outside their states without paying a market fee or cess and creates a framework for contract farming.
The government argues that this will plough private investment into agriculture, but it miscalculated the opposition from farmer groups which think the legislation is the first step towards dismantling a system where the government ensures a minimum price for their crops.
Union leaders said they would continue the protests till the laws were repealed by the government and other issues like low crop prices were addressed by the government.
"This rally (over the weekend) was to strengthen our protests and awaken farmers on the issues that are facing them... It is basically to say that if we don't get the prices for our crops, we will not support (the BJP) . It is only natural," said Mr Rajveer Singh Jadaun, Uttar Pradesh president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union. "This movement is getting stronger. We will continue to protest peacefully at Delhi borders."
For the BJP, Uttar Pradesh remains a big prize. It has 80 MPs and is home to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency of Varanasi.
In 2017, the BJP cruised to victory on the back of Mr Modi's popularity, winning 320 out of 403 seats, along with its allies.
This time, it is also seen to have the upper hand. At least one opinion poll, by CVoter, ABP News and IANS news agency, predicted a BJP return to power in the absence of any major challenger, with 259 to 267 seats.
The BJP has dismissed the farmers' protests as a political ploy and accused opposition parties of being behind the protests, even as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has promised to withdraw cases against farmers for stubble burning, and waive interest on electricity dues.
Farmers do not vote as a homogeneous community, with caste- and issue-based considerations - apart from the choice of candidates - moulding voting decisions.
"This farmer protest is now a political movement. They are trying to get votes. It no longer has anything to do with farmers. It is restricted to western Uttar Pradesh," said Mr Manoj Yadav, national media head in charge of the BJP Kisan Morcha, the farmers' wing of the party.
"It won't have any impact. We don't think farms laws will be such a big issue."
Still, at least one BJP MP, Mr Varun Gandhi, has urged his party to re-engage farmers, in what some see as a sense of unease within the party.
"We need to start re-engaging with them in a respectful manner: Understand their pain, their point of view and work with them in reaching common ground," he tweeted.