31/01/2017 11:04 AM IST | Updated 31/01/2017 1:23 PM IST

Can Modi Withstand The Pressure To Put Free Cash In Jan Dhan Accounts?

The poor are still hopeful Modi will put money in their accounts.

Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters

A Valmiki woman, sweeping a shopfront on the outskirts of Aligarh city, is not sure who she will vote for in this UP election. "Last time my family voted for Modi," she says. "People said Modi will put money in the account but hasn't done so far. Let's see," she added, two days before the budget is to be presented.

It's a refrain you will hear from the poor across north India. Having opened Jan Dhan accounts, they expect Modi to put cash in them. There are several reasons for this expectation.

The Modi government gave banks impossible targets to open millions of zero balance Jan Dhan accounts. It is suspected even fake accounts were opened by rural bank branches to meet the targets. One of the ways the poor were made to line up to sign up for Jan Dhan accounts was to spread the rumour that government benefits will flow through this account, making it almost compulsory for them.

This is what one heard in the Bihar elections in 2015, and again in UP in 2017. The pain caused by demonetisation, the poor hoped, would end with Modi putting money in their accounts. Many of them are not opposed to demonetisation despite the hardships it caused them, but expect a reward.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
People stand in queue outside the ICICI Bank ATM machine to withdraw cash in sector-14, on December 29, 2016 in Gurgaon, India.

They expected such a reward after the 30 December deadline, and they still expect it. Another reason why this expectation is so large, is because of a rumour about Rs 15 lakhs. Before the Bihar elections, Nitish Kumar played a speech by Modi 'promising' Rs 15 lakhs to every Indian. Modi said there's so much Indian black money stashed abroad, if it were brought back, every India would get Rs 15 lakh.

Since then, as the opposition has made an issue of the Rs 15 lakhs, the poor are hoping it might actually happen. Travelling in UP in the third week of December, this writer witnessed an interesting exchange between fruit-sellers in Unnao. "I have heard some people got Rs 3 lakhs in their accounts," said one woman. "That's all rumour. It's not true," another replied.

The growing noise over "universal basic income" is an effort to justify "doles" without making them sound like socialist 'doles'.

The Modi government, his party and policies, are opposed to doles. Modi wants people to take loans and investment, do their own thing, rather than poverty alleviation programmes.

The growing noise over "universal basic income" is an effort to justify "doles" without making them sound like socialist 'doles'. The big hurdle here is the government may not have enough money to give millions of poor people thousands of rupees, leave alone lakhs.

Another suggestion is to package direct benefits transfer as the Modi cash for Jan Dhan. Modi, as we know by now, likes to do big, revolutionary things. Modi could shut down NREGA or the food security law completely, and instead channel that money into Jan Dhan accounts. (Though he doesn't have a Rajya Sabha majority to repeal laws at will.)

Doing so could politically backfire too, as people might say Modi is taking away from one hand while giving from another. But Modi could sell the savings in operational costs, administrative bottlenecks and corruption as a net gain for the poor.

This way or that, Modi will have to put hard cash in Jan Dhan accounts before 2019. Not doing so could make "Where are the 15 lakhs?" the biggest election issue in 2019.

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