Lok Sabha elections 2019: Can Congress’ basic income promise be an election game-changer? A fact check
The Congress hopes that with the announcement, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s perceived surge after the Balakot strikes will diminish; conversation will shift back to core livelihood and welfare issues.Updated: Mar 27, 2019 13:44 IST
In a strikingly ambitious move, Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced on Monday that the party, if elected to power, would guarantee a minimum income of Rs 72,000 a year (Rs 6,000 a month) to 50 million of the poorest Indian families.
The Congress hopes that with the announcement, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s perceived surge after the Balakot strikes will diminish; conversation will shift back to core livelihood and welfare issues; the allure of what is a rather substantial degree of income support will galvanise the most deprived of Indian voters solidly behind the party; and Gandhi would clearly get positioned as someone setting the agenda rather than just responding to the government.
There is no doubt that this is an important policy announcement which will, like the Telangana Rythu Bandhu, Odisha’s KALIA and the central government’s PM-KISAN schemes (which were all limited to farmers), transform the welfare architecture in India. Irrespective of electoral outcome, in the long term, it will prod political parties, both nationally and across states, to increasingly offer more direct cash support to the poor. But in the short-term, Congress’ main task is to transform this announcement into an electoral game-changer. The party confronts both opportunities and challenges in this exercise.
Communicating political intent
The first challenge is political communication. The advantage here is that the party’s message is simple and attractive — we will give Rs 6,000 per month to poor families. Getting this crisp message out in these days of social media and technology is not too difficult either. Indeed, the announcement was a key talking point across social media platforms, television and print media through Monday and Tuesday.
But for any party to explain its policy intent, it has to finally rely on its organisational apparatus. The Congress, with the Shakti network, has a better handle on its workers now than it did in the past. But the fact that it is not cadre-based means it does not have the organisational weight to take the message down to the intended beneficiaries at a micro level. For instance, when the BJP recognised that beneficiaries of its welfare schemers were a core potential constituency, the party organised multiple video conferences of select beneficiaries with PM Narendra Modi (critics alleged these were scripted events) even as party president Amit Shah ensured that at the booth level, workers were getting in touch with these beneficiaries to ensure they knew who provided the welfare aid. Or take even the Balakot strikes.
The relentless electronic media coverage got the message out. But it was BJP supporters sitting in tea shops and bazaars across the heartland who really added to the myth building exercise around Narendra Modi’s muscular policies.
This is what Congress really needs to do — get to as many of the 50 million families as possible to tell them that they will benefit if the party comes to power. The challenge here is obvious. Neither is there a list of beneficiaries present at the moment (it will be a long and complicated process to identify the households) nor is there adequate time to do a micro campaign targeted at individual beneficiaries.
The second challenge is actually deeper. What the Congress has embarked on is class politics. And one does not need to be a Marxist to know that politics around class identities means there will be resistance from other classes. In India, with the close overlap between class and identity, this assumes even more complex dimensions.
The Congress’ big opportunity in terms of class is being able to mobilise tribal voters, one of the poorest segments of Indian population who will benefit in large numbers if the scheme does get operationalised. The state polls at the end of last year showed an increase in the disillusionment of tribals with the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in particular. These two states, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Jharkhand, together have 31 tribal seats. If Congress can make a dent in a majority of these seats (except in Odisha, in all other states, it is in direct competition with BJP), it will yield major dividends. The logic cannot be easily extended to Scheduled Caste-reserved seats, however, because in such constituencies, non-Scheduled Caste groups actually have a greater say in determining outcomes.
It is not clear how this will play out in UP. If the move does sway a large number of poor, particularly Scheduled Castes, to the Congress, and make the contest truly triangular, it could actually benefit the BJP by cutting into the votes of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance.
But there will be resistance from other classes. And the Congress must have taken the leap knowing there are trade-offs involved in terms of class groups which could get alienated. The middle class, which occupies a wide income spectrum, in both bigger cities and smaller towns is not likely to be enthused with the scheme. Some shadow BJP social media handles have already begun a campaign to suggest that this is an instance of bleeding the hardworking middle class.
A prominent Hindi newspaper on Tuesday did a major story on how the move will destroy fiscal discipline, but more importantly, have major inflationary consequences, which is sure to ring alarm bells for many. It is also not clear how corporate India — it has been somewhat disillusioned with the Modi government though it has played it safe -- will respond to a welfare scheme of this scale given the fiscal implications. Most significantly though, because of their sheer numbers, the response of smaller Other Backward Class (OBC) groups will have to be judged.
There is enormous heterogeneity among these groups but those who may just miss the threshold to avail the scheme could resent it on the ground and build opinion against it. This is the risk with a targeted rather than a universal scheme.
When asked about the adverse response of these groups, a Congress functionary said, “But they are not with us anyway. And see, no one can publicly, in India, oppose supporting the poor. So even if they are unhappy, the BJP cannot actively campaign on this.”
Asset versus income debate
An Indian Express analysis by Harish Damodaran, soon after BJP received a setback in the state elections at the end of 2018, pointed out that the central government has actually done well in creating rural assets. He noted that the total number of rural houses created since 2015-16 was 3.3 times more than what was created in the preceding four years; the pace of rural road construction has increased; the number of active LPG connections has drastically gone up, with household penetration levels rising to 88.1%; rural electrification has increased; more than 89.8 million toilets were built since October 2, 2014. But the problem has been that notwithstanding this impressive expansion in rural assets, rural incomes have not grown -- and may in fact have dipped. This goes back to the issue of farm crisis. HT’s Roshan Kishore has, for the past year at least, used data to show that rural incomes and wages have declined – one reason for the agrarian crisis. This is the gap Modi tried to fill in with the PM-KISAN scheme. And this is the gap Congress is seeking to fill by scaling up its income assistance limits, and expanding it to the poorest families beyond small and marginal farmers.
In the following weeks, expect the debate on income versus assets to intensify. The challenge for the Congress will be to convince even those who have benefited from the BJP’s schemes to convert; the challenge for the BJP will be to retain its welfare beneficiaries and assure them that it will, in the next term, be able to also aid income growth.
With its announcement of a minimum income guarantee scheme, the Congress has contributed in helping steer the political discourse towards important questions: what can be done to eliminate poverty? Which are the best tools for it? Who has a better track record on the issue? And how does a government attempt this exercise while keeping macro-economic fundamentals in order?
In the next few weeks, this conversation will play out in campaign rallies, in small towns and villages across the country. To translate it into seats will however require sustained and deft political communication, managing class contradictions and gaining narrative dominance.