India's main Hindu nationalist party says it plans to clamp down on beef exports if it takes power after general elections that end today, threatening supplies from one of the world's biggest shippers of the meat.
Surprisingly in a country where so many view cows as sacred, India has been poised to top Brazil and become the top beef exporting nation, supplying markets such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Egypt.
Although most of that is from buffalo, which are not worshipped by Hindus, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to curb exports that jar with the country's vegetarian tradition and to bolster the availability of animals reared to work on farms and for their milk.
A drop in Indian exports could buoy global cattle prices that have come off record peaks this year after the US herd was pegged at its lowest in more than six decades.
"If elected, we will crack down on beef exports and we will also review the subsidy the government gives for beef or buffalo meat exports," said Satpal Malik, the BJP vice-president who drafted the farm policy section of its election manifesto.
To help beef producers and exporters set up abattoirs, the federal government pays 50 to 75 per cent of construction costs.
The BJP manifesto defines the "cow and its progeny" as integral to India's cultural heritage - appealing to the party's core constituency of Hindus who abhor eating beef.
The party has also said it would outlaw cow slaughter in the only two states where it is permitted, and wants to stamp out illegal abattoirs where meat from cows enters the supply chain.
Voting in the country's mammoth five-week general election has nearly finished, with polls showing the BJP taking the most seats and propelling Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist hardliner, to power.
The possibility of a government drive to reduce exports has spooked beef suppliers at India's largest abattoir, which slaughters 300 to 500 cattle a day in Deonar on the outskirts of Mumbai.
"We have voted for Congress but if the BJP comes to power, we will have to be cautious. They are against our trade and they may come with strict rules," said supplier Mohammad Shareef Qureshi. Beef production is dominated by Muslims, a minority in the country, and can stir sectarian divisions.
However, some in the industry say a BJP win will only have a limited impact on exports. Government figures show these increased to US$3.2 billion in 2012/13 from US$1.9 billion in 2010/11, boosted by robust demand for cheap, lean Indian halal meat.
"Any major restrictions on exports are unlikely because meat exports are a big source of earning for the government," said Salim Qureshi, a top supplier of buffalo in the northern town of Aligarh.
Seven police officers killed in landmine blast
A landmine blast blamed on Maoist rebels killed seven police officers yesterday in an insurgency-hit region of central India, the latest deadly attack during national elections, an official said.
The policemen were patrolling a densely forested area of Maharashtra state when their vehicle hit the mine planted by rebels.
Teams have been posted to the Maoist-hit region to ensure "peace and calm" ahead of vote counting across the country after the final round of polling today, said Dharmendra Joshi, police spokesman for the Gadchiroli district.
"Our police teams have been on high alert and have been posted in different villages in this Naxal-affected region to ensure peace and calm in the lead up to May 16 election counting," Joshi said, referring to the rebels, also known as Naxalites.
"An operation has been launched to track the men behind this attack and the entire area has been cordoned off."
The Maoist rebels have called for a boycott of the mammoth election that ends today, with the last round of voting in three states.
Maoist rebels killed five police officers and three polling officials in April in the state of Jharkhand.
Insurgents also killed 14 people in two poll-related blasts in the central state of Chhattisgarh in March.
Separatist and Maoist insurgencies affect India's northeast, northwest and central regions. Many of the rebels say they are fighting authorities for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups.
The Maoist insurgency has cost thousands of lives. The rebels are most active in forested, resource-rich areas in the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.