Less than a year ago, the BJP described MGNREGA as the ‘living monument of failures’ of the UPA government which had launched it. Now, the party described it as the ‘nation’s pride.’ What made the BJP-led NDA government change its stance on the job guarantee scheme?
For one, it is the popularity of the scheme in rural areas and the party’s loss of ground in the rural belt. Secondly, it is the pressure from its grassroot-level leaders and MPs who vouched for the scheme.
When the BJP came to power with an overwhelming majority in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — like many other senior BJP leaders — believed that the job guarantee scheme was the wrong way to utilise funds for the poor. (In fact, many Congress leaders also thought the same). They were firm believers of the trickle-down theory: you invest money in infrastructure and the successful sectors would stimulate the economy.
The BJP’s argument, even when it had to back MGNREGA as it would have been political suicide to oppose it in Parliament, was that it would not create any assets. The PM’s remark that the scheme was a “living monument” of the UPA’s failures drew inspiration from this belief.
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However, the crises in the farm sector – the government’s inability to provide Minimum Support Price (MSP) as promised and repeated crop failures due to droughts, hailstorms and floods – have led to farmers losing faith in the government. To add to its woes, the Opposition’s campaign that the government is anti-farmer in the wake of the NDA government’s move to bring in a new land acquisition law, further antagonised farmers and the rural population.
The job guarantee scheme had become a boon for many BJP-ruled states as a way to give relief to troubled farmers. In an interview with The Indian Express in April last year, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan had termed the scheme as “one of the best programmes since Independence” as it has led to an “increase’’ in the income level of rural farmers.
Sarpanches from the BJP across the northern belt had conveyed to the party leadership that the MGNREGA scheme was popular among poor farmers. BJP MPs were uncomfortable with the PM’s criticism of the job guarantee scheme because they felt only pro-rich economists had opposed it. They wanted the government to improve the scheme, not scrap it. Besides, it is one of the few programmes of the central government that reached the farthest corners of the country. The only other programme equally familiar in rural areas is the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana launched by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
So, the BJP was forced to appropriate the scheme and lay claim to it by improving it and making it more constructive. This is one way it has to salvage its image among the rural population.