Modi reaches out to poor to steer votes in state polls

Loan and housing schemes also seen as bid to limit damage from demonetisation move

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose party has traditionally been supported by the trading classes and upper caste, has made reaching out to the poor a priority, especially in the run-up to crucial assembly elections - including that of the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Modi Cabinet yesterday approved a scheme that subsidises interest for loans of up to 200,000 rupees (S$4,166) to make it easier for the poor in rural areas to construct or extend their houses.

Over the last three weeks, Mr Modi has urged his party members to pay particular attention to the poor. He has announced a 33 per cent increase in the number of houses built for the poor under a housing scheme, a cash handout of 6,000 rupees for poor pregnant women, and rebates on crop loans for farmers.

"I was born in poverty and have lived in poverty and I understand the pain of poverty," he noted at the national meeting of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier this month.

Mr Modi came to power with a massive majority in the 2014 election on a reformist agenda, promising to initiate an economic revival and create jobs.

He started by cutting spending on social programmes to free up funds for building infrastructure to push growth.

LIMITED IMPACT

These announcements will have a little bit of impact but (it wouldn't be) significant. But the biggest puzzle is how demonetisation will impact voters.

DR AFTAB ALAM, associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.

But over the past year, Mr Modi has sought to burnish his image as defender of the poor and also increase the political influence of the BJP in a country where around 22 per cent of its people are living under the global poverty line.

In the 2016 budget, Mr Modi increased spending on social welfare schemes, opened up millions of bank accounts for the poor and gave special focus to direct transfer of benefits to the poor.

The recent slew of government announcements for the poor are also seen as an effort to blunt the fallout from the demonetisation of high- value currency notes last November to bring billions of dollars worth of cash in unaccounted wealth into the mainstream economy.

While the move against so-called "black money" was hailed by many of the country's poor as an anti-corruption move targeting the rich, its poor execution has hurt spending and led to job losses.

Analysts say the government's announcements of policies to help the poor would have some impact on assembly elections but factors such as candidates, caste and religion remained important.

"I think it (the outreach) should have some impact... poor people have appreciated the leadership for doing something constructive and... in addition to this, other anti-poverty programmes are being launched," said Professor Chintamani Mahapatra of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"But we will have to wait and see how much of an impact it will have."

Said Dr Aftab Alam, associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University: "These announcements will have a little bit of impact but (it wouldn't be) significant. But the biggest puzzle is how demonetisation will impact voters."

Campaigning for assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and four other states - Goa, Punjab, Manipur and Uttarakhand - is in full flow, with voting set to take place in multiple phases in February and March.

Votes will be counted on March 11.

The most important election is in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is hoping for a win against an alliance of the Congress and Samajwadi parties, and the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Ms Mayawati.

A win in Uttar Pradesh would give the BJP a boost in the upper house, where state wins determine house composition. It currently has a minority in the upper house while it has a majority in the lower house.

The BJP maintains it has support among the poor while rival Congress contends it has greater resonance among poorer communities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Modi reaches out to poor to steer votes in state polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe