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Free Food? Modi Makes Sure Every Indian Knows Whom to Thank for It.

WorldAsiaFree Food? Modi Makes Sure Every Indian Knows Whom to Thank for It.


Durga Prasad, an 80-year-old farmer, was resting under the shade of a tree in front of his home when the party workers came. An app on their smartphones could tell them in an instant who Mr. Prasad was, whom he might vote for — and why he should be grateful to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

“You get installments of 2,000 rupees, right?” asked a local official from Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. Mr. Prasad concurred. He receives $72 a year through a farmers’ welfare program started and branded by Mr. Modi.

“Do you get rations?” the official then asked, though he already knew the answer. He had made his point.

Such handouts are among the most distinctive parts of Mr. Modi’s mass appeal. The country’s new airports, diplomatic prestige and booming stock markets may look like Mr. Modi’s calling card, but for the 95 percent of Indians who earn too little to file income taxes, small infusions of cash and household goods matter more. And Mr. Modi’s party is organized to make the most of them in the national election that ends early next month.

India’s welfare programs are vast in reach and scope. Under the biggest, 821 million Indians are entitled to five-kilogram (11-pound) sacks of free rice or wheat every month. The government started doling out grain to prevent hunger early in the pandemic and has since committed $142 billion to the program. Mr. Modi’s face began appearing on the sacks in January.

Another prime minister-branded program has helped people build 15 million homes since 2015, at a price tag of $3 billion a year; home improvements and additions are covered, too. The government has also footed the cost of millions of toilets, and it is working to provide piped drinking water to every home.

The foundation of this expanded welfare system was laid soon after Mr. Modi became prime minister in 2014. Bank accounts, also “P.M.” branded, became available to all Indians who lacked them, meshed with a universal-ID program started by the previous government.

The accounts gave the state valuable information about the financial lives of even its poorest citizens. And they opened the way for “direct benefit transfers,” money that bypasses the sometimes corrupt local officials who once distributed welfare — appearing to come instead from Mr. Modi himself.

These transfers grew to $76 billion in the last fiscal year. But Mr. Modi’s budgets have not become profligate. That is in part because government spending on education and health care — long-term investments — has shrunk as a share of the economy as branded welfare programs have proliferated. Spending on a guaranteed-employment program associated with Mr. Modi’s opponents has also fallen.

Whatever the motivation behind them, the tangible food and household benefits prioritized by Mr. Modi have relieved Indians’ pain as the economy slowed before the pandemic, collapsed during its first year and then recovered unevenly. The Hindu-nationalist government distributes the assistance equally among all religious groups, even if it does not receive many votes from some of them.

The handouts are perhaps the most powerful thing Mr. Modi can point to when claiming credit for improving the lives of his fellow Indians, hundreds of millions of whom remain desperate for reliable jobs with decent pay.

Vinod Misra, the local B.J.P. official who recently visited Mr. Prasad in Amethi, a district in the state of Uttar Pradesh, explained that in poorer places where people once died of hunger, “our party is working especially for programs that touch everyone.”

“All we have to do is go and tell the family, ‘Brother, this roof you got, who made it happen?’” Mr. Misra said.

In a country where 80 percent of the population is either rural or poor, people are dead serious about getting something in exchange for their votes, said Pradeep Gupta, the director of Axis My India, a polling outfit. If a politician delivers on promises, “the people elect you again and again and again,” Mr. Gupta said. Everything else is “marketing.”

The B.J.P.’s follow-up with voters is the end result of a gargantuan effort that leverages its ideologically committed core membership, its funding, its nationwide organization and, increasingly, its sophisticated management of data.

In the temple town of Pushkar, west of Amethi within the Hindi-speaking “cow belt” that is a stronghold of the B.J.P., another local party worker explained the virtue of an app called Saral. With a few swipes and taps, the worker, Shakti Singh Rathore, shared a bird’s-eye view of his neighbors, whom he intended to marshal for Mr. Modi.

There are 241 “booths,” or polling stations, in Pushkar’s constituency, each with its own mapped boundaries. Mr. Rathore flicked open the information for one of the booths he was supervising. His targets were not just voters, but beneficiaries, or “labharthis” — an important new term of art in the ground campaign.

“The labharthis’ names are all listed here,” Mr. Rathore said. One man he named had received a cooking gas cylinder — “here is his address and postal code and phone number.” Another had gotten cash from the farmers’ welfare program.

“All the data is here,” Mr. Rathore said.

Anyone can download Saral through the Apple or Google Play stores for campaign updates, though only enlisted B.J.P. workers get to explore its databases. The party’s national leadership has said it uses Saral to connect more than six million of its workers. They can both retrieve and upload data about voters and beneficiaries.

Voters do not seem bothered, or are at least not surprised, that so much information about their relationships with the national government is carried door to door by political workers.

Mr. Misra said he did not know exactly how all the personal information made its way into the app. Other local-level workers said they assumed that the data had been provided by the government itself, given its accuracy. Amit Malviya, the B.J.P.’s head of information and technology, said at a start-up conference in December that the 30 terabytes of data had been collected manually by the party over the past 10 elections.

Saral does many other things that are useful for the party’s ground game. It tracks workers’ outreach and measures them against one another by their performance, in effect “gamifying” the hard slog of canvassing.

It also gives the workers the chance to help smooth out voters’ receipt of their benefits, erasing the distinction between partisan politics and government work.

Mr. Modi himself said to a TV crew this month that he had told party workers to gather information about voters who had not received their benefits and to “assure them that it’s the Modi guarantee — they will get it in my third term.”

Ajay Singh Gaur, a B.J.P. worker who accompanied Mr. Misra for the doorstepping around Amethi, found himself drawn into a long exchange with Dinesh Maurya, a farmer who complained that a faulty electrical wire had fallen onto his wheat field.

“My whole crop was burned down, and I haven’t got a single coin’s worth of compensation,” Mr. Maurya said.

Mr. Gaur assured Mr. Maurya that he would get him the money the state owed him. “I have spoken to the officer in charge” at the generating station, he said. “I will get it done.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.



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