2019 elections: Rahul Gandhi’s minimum income for poor leads discourse on poll promises

Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced on Monday that his party would ensure “minimum income guarantee” for the country’s poor if it returns to power in the coming Lok Sabha polls.

“The Congress has decided to take a historic decision … The Congress-led government is going to give minimum income guarantee. This means, every poor person in India will have a minimum income. This means there will be no hungry, poor people in India (any longer),” he is reported as saying at a rally.

Addressing a “Kisaan Abhaar Sammelan” in Chhattisgarh, Gandhi thanked the people, especially farmers, for voting the Congress to power in the state after 15 years.

Having already kept his promise of waiving farmers’ loans in four of the states Congress won in Assembly elections last year, this latest strategy seems to be a more measured and politically correct response to the growing economic disparity and unemployment in the country, as opposed to the NDA government’s recent employment and education quota for the upper caste poor.

Cause for hope?

Reminding that the BJP government had waived Rs 3.5 lakh crore worth of loans of 15 big industrialists, Gandhi said, “We don’t want two Indias. There will be one India, and in that India, the Congress will give minimum income to every poor person. No government in the world has done this till now. The Congress is going to do that, it will be a historic feat.”

“We cannot build a new India while millions of our brothers & sisters suffer the scourge of poverty,” he later tweeted, adding, “If voted to power in 2019, the Congress is committed to a Minimum Income Guarantee for every poor person, to help eradicate poverty & hunger. This is our vision & our promise.”

The Congress-led UPA government had enacted the employment guarantee law when it was in power, offering the promised 100 days of employment to the poor. “140 million people were lifted out of poverty between 2004 and 2014. Now we should make a determined effort to wipe out poverty in India,” former Finance P. Chidambaram tweeted, voicing his support for and faith in the proposed policy.

Response from Mayawati

However, not everyone is pleased with Gandhi’s big election promise. BSP supremo Mayawati launched a barbed attack against the Congress chief on Tuesday, comparing his “historic decision” to former PM Indira Gandhi’s “ ” campaign. Coined ahead of the 1971 election, the slogan had led to a Congress victory but subsequently revealed the hollowness at its core, as the party failed to deliver on its promises.

In a statement, the Dalit leader asked, “Is this promise another cruel joke like the Congress’s promise of ‘ ‘ or that of the present BJP government of depositing Rs.15 to 20 lakh in the account of all the poor or ‘ din’ which have only proved to be hollow promises?”

This response serves to highlight the widening rift between Congress and the two regional parties, SP and BSP, which enjoy some clout in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh. A chasm opened up when the three opposition parties failed to put together a united front before the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan Chhattisgarh where Congress won big.

The Congress, earlier this month, retorted by appointing Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as one of the party’s general secretaries in the state, announcing it would contest all the 80 seats in the upcoming polls.

That said, Mayawati’s response is not far from the truth, because most of UPA’s erstwhile and NDA’s existing measures, in the guise of development, have been an eyewash so far.

How BJP responded to Gandhi’s scheme

Spokespersons of the party lost no time in calling Gandhi’s promise a political gimmick, raising questions about the feasibility of implementing such a guarantee.

“It has since remained on the table because you cannot find resources for a guaranteed income support without doing  away with subsidies on food, fertilisers and kerosene. A rollback of government assistance on healthcare, education and employment generation will also become necessary. Else, the fiscal deficit will be in double digits, sparking runaway inflation. Is Congress ready for that?,” a highly placed government official told the Times of India

The Congress is yet to offer a blueprint for the programme without raising the country’s fiscal deficits, two years after a similar initiative was scrapped by the Economic Survey, for being politically unfeasible.

BJP’s poll promises

Meanwhile, BJP claims it will win Uttar Pradesh again through the work done by the government of Chief Minister Adityanath. According to party chief Amit Shah, the ruling BJP will get a boost from the government’s achievements in raising the living standards of 220 million poor families by providing toilets, electricity, cooking gas and banking facilities. 

In its manifesto for the upcoming polls released last November, BJP has promised 30,000 new government jobs every year, 50 lakh employment opportunities in the private sector over the next five years and Rs 5,000/month as unemployment allowance. Unemployment has exacerbated under the Modi regime, which means that these promises do not reassure even his core vote bank, especially without a clear plan of action to implement such admittedly ambitious schemes.

The manifesto also held out a possibility to farmers of doubling their income, helped by a new Rs 250-crore fund to encourage rural start-ups, some of which may be announced in the upcoming Interim Budget session.

India’s tryst with UBI

Universal basic income for all was deliberated by Indian lawmakers even before independence. But it was not until 1964 that such a plan was tabled for discussion. Under the UPA government in 2011-2012, one such UBI project was implemented on a pilot basis across 8 villages in Madhya Pradesh. It was later taken up for an extensive rollout in when the Economic Survey recommended for the bottom 75% of population.

Read more: Explained: What is Universal Basic Income?

Variations of the UBI are currently being tested in various countries including Canada, Kenya, parts of the US, while studies are being conducted in France, Germany and Spain to assess its feasibility. In Finland, a scheme to pay 2,000 jobless people with the assistance of 650 euros/month was testes in 2017.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Lok Sabha Elections 2019Minimum Income GuaranteeRahul Gandhi