Chetan Rathi has twice voted for Narendra Modi, impressed by the Indian prime minister’s tough stance on national security issues. Now, the 26-year-old is among the tens of thousands of angry farmers who have set up camp on the outskirts of New Delhi in protest at the Modi government and its plans for a sweeping overhaul of India’s agricultural markets.

“Modi said ‘save the country from external enemies,’ but now the country is being sold from inside,” said Rathi, who grows wheat, rice and sugar on his 30-acre plot in Uttar Pradesh province.

“It won’t be a market for farmers, it will be a stock market,” he said of the market reforms that farmers fear will leave them vulnerable to corporate exploitation. “The long-term consequences will be disastrous. A few people will command the whole system.”

The farmers, who have vowed to continue their occupation of several critical roads into the capital until the laws are repealed, have become the most serious political threat Modi has faced since he came to power in 2014.

With the agitation spreading nationwide, tapping a deep wellspring of rural discontent, the challenge for the government is how to pacify the protesters and defuse the ire that erupted into violence last month.

“These [farmers] are dissenters who have numbers, resources and organisational mobility, and are bound by a very strong sense of solidarity that enables them to endure a lot,” said Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University. “Every farmer community everywhere is discussing these farm laws. It is not just a local or regional matter.”

The protests have also attracted the attention of celebrities including Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, and the pop star Rihanna who have expressed their support on Twitter.

Tensions between the farmers and the government have mounted since September, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata party pushed through an overhaul of the domestic agricultural markets with little scrutiny or public consultation at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Modi has touted the rules — which remove a bar on private companies buying directly from growers — as giving farmers more freedom to transact, enhancing their earning potential.

But many view the deregulation as a step towards ending state procurement of foodgrains at guaranteed prices. Farmers believe this will leave them at the mercy of powerful corporations such as Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and Gautam Adani’s eponymous company, claims both companies deny.

“They want us to become contract farmers — bonded labourers on our own farmland,” said Jaypal Singh, 72, who has camped out on National Highway 9 since late November. “Modi wants to hand our ancestral [land] to Ambani and Adani.”

Modi’s government has dealt firmly in the past with opposition, such as Muslims protesting citizenship law changes. But many of the farmers who have taken to the streets have previously supported Modi for keeping rival Pakistan and India’s Muslim minority in check.

How Modi now handles their grievances on bread-and-butter issues could have long-term electoral repercussions for the BJP, given the farmers’ size and importance as a constituency.

“This government played on our emotions,” said Daksh Sirohi, 24, a mechanical engineer whose family grows wheat and rice. “I fought with my family that they should vote for Modi because of religion. Now I’m feeling robbed.”

The government initially took a conciliatory approach to the unrest, with ministers engaging in 11 rounds of talks with farmer leaders and offering to postpone implementation of the laws for 18 months.

But farmers’ groups rejected the compromise, demanding New Delhi repeal the laws and make binding commitments to public procurement of grain at fixed prices.

“It is a question of farmers’ livelihood — do or die,” said Dharmendra Malik, a spokesman for the influential Indian Farmers’ Union.

Since the violent clashes between protesters and police on Republic Day last month, Modi has taken a tougher stance. He has called the demonstrators part of an “international conspiracy”, lashing out at “those who thrive on protests” and describing them as “parasites.”

The BJP has also sought to stoke divisions among the farmers, likening the protesters to kulaks, wealthy peasants targeted as exploitative class enemies of poorer farmers in the former Soviet Union.

Police have arrested scores of protesters for allegedly participating in the violence and suspended internet services around demonstration sites. Twitter was ordered to block hundreds of accounts that New Delhi saw as instigating unrest, including that of an opposition MP.

“There is a new FDI that the country has to be saved from — that is foreign destructive ideology,” Modi told parliament this week.

Such rhetoric has raised the spectre of an imminent crackdown. But with summer heat looming, Modi may be betting the protests will simply peter out.

“They don’t have a lot of options,” Verniers said of Modi’s administration. “They’ve sold the image of the prime minister as an omnipotent and benevolent leader, who does not need to negotiate or discuss, and any concession they give to the protesters is a sign of weakness.”

On the highway, the farmers insist they are preparing for a long haul, with one claiming 5,000 air coolers have been ordered to keep conditions tolerable as temperatures rise.

In a makeshift community kitchen, Chamkor Singh, a 35-year-old farmer from Kashipur, scoffed at insinuations the farmers were undermining the nation. “If we have brothers and sisters in Canada, and they feel the pain of our house burning down and support us, what’s wrong in that,” he said.

Singh insisted the farmers would not give up easily as they waited for the prime minister’s next move. “It’s all in Modi’s hands now,” he said.