Valson Thampu

Valson Thampu

Rahul Gandhi announced, at a press conference on the 25th, that families below the poverty line would be brought under a minimum income guarantee of Rs.12000 per month. This could mean that their incomes would need to be topped up to Rs.72000 per annum or Rs.6000 per month. He sounded confident about the feasibility of the scheme. The BJP was quick to damn it as an election subterfuge, meant to fool the poor.

If Modi announces farm subsidy to the tune of Rs.6000 per annum (or, Rs.500 per month) on the eve of the elections, we are to believe that it is out of unalloyed humanitarian and philanthropic instincts. If the Congress beats him to it, it is out of mean-minded electoral covetousness. But that is not the main issue. The issue is that the Congress could fail as usual to take full advantage even of a game-changer like this scheme, which is without a parallel in the world. The BJP is clearly rattled. It is as if Rahul has done a Balakot on Modi. Suddenly the balloon of jingoism seems burst.

The scope of Rahul’s scheme is that five crore families – or twenty-five crore people – could benefit from it. It could make a palpable difference in the quality of their life, even impacting the education of rural children and improving their health.

Let me state here what would never occur to the Congress party to say, though it is the most important thing to say in this connection. The hostile and sarcastic reaction of the BJP to this scheme is not at indexed to its unfeasibility. It is eminently feasible. The financial implication – I deliberately avoid the word ‘burden’ in this context – of this scheme could be anything between Rs.30000 crores and Rs.3 lakh crores. The upper limit is, assuming that all the BPL families in 20% bracket has zero income, which is simply not the case. So, it makes sense to take a median figure of, say, Rs.1.5 lakh crores. That is a great deal less than the amount annually written off as tax subsidy to the corporates in this country. It is also less than the NPAs written off last year, benefitting the same over-fed segment of our country.

Any outlay from the national exchequer becomes a ‘burden,’ a ‘waste,’ a ‘fiscal irresponsibility’ when it is meant to alleviate the deprivation the poor. We haven’t forgotten the alarmist reactions of the corporate lobby when the MGNREGA was introduced. It was projected as a body blow to the Indian economy. The annual outlay involved was a fraction of what we lost through one calamitous initiative by the Modi government – the demonetization fiasco. Yet, no one ever said a word about the economy suffering a body blow.

The richest continue to clamour for more and more, like an infernal pit fitted with a cosmic mouth. They get whatever they ask for. It’s become their birth right. The state has a duty to cough up indulgent measures. The excuse? Well, they generate jobs. But where are the jobs? Jobs are at an all-time low.

For the BJP, the measure Rahul proposes to introduce has another worrisome aspect. For an authoritarian ideology and a strong-man leader to thrive, a certain degree of economic disarray is essential. As theorists on fascism have pointed out creating economic disarray is of strategic importance for such ideologies and outfits. It is in a state of helplessness and bewilderment that people prefer to compromise their freedom and entrust their destiny to a strong leader. If voters are lifted above lines of financial distress, their quality of life is enhanced, and the way to their empowerment opened, it could be a long-term political setback for the BJP. I am not sure if Rahul is strategizing along those lines; but I won’t be surprised, if he is. He is emerging to be a far shrewder tactician than I had expected even in my wildest expectations. This is a good thing for the country.

The enormous BJP propaganda machine – its gargantuan network pulsating through every tissue and sinew of the country – will now go into over-drive. Rahul’s announcement will be rubbished from door to door. Judging by the quantity of propaganda material I receive daily, I am astonished at the sheer force and magnitude of this operation. What would make it effective to discredit this scheme is the fact that the pro-poor track-record of the Congress party in the recent years -especially under UPA-II is not very convincing. It is certainly legitimate to ask, “How come the brain of the party begins to tick in the pro-poor direction only on the eve of elections?”

I am fully inclined to believe that Rahul Gandhi is sincere in his thinking and clear political vision and that this is not an election gimmick. He has a heart for the poor. But it is something that still needs to be established on the ground. As against this, he is burdened by an unhelpful image of the party, which could make amends for its past mistakes through Rahul. I say this because silver lining it runs in the much-maligned family.

I remember a long conversation that I had with Sonia Gandhi in 2003, before the party was voted to power. “My two priorities are,” she told me, “preserving the secular fabric of India intact, and alleviating the poverty of the masses.” This, I believe, was addressed in UPA-1. It got obscured in the five years that followed. I am sure that the events of the last five years have taught Rahul valuable lessons. He has proved himself a keen learner, like his parents. I will hope against hope that this is indeed the case; for nothing less than a repentant return of the Congress Party to the poor will help avert the danger that is hovering over the country today.

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