“The draft NREGA entered national policy debates in India… like a wet dog at a glamorous party,” wrote Jean Dreze, one of the main authors of the first draft, in a 2010 article recounting the start.
However, regardless of its humble beginning, and much in line with what Victor Hugo had said – “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” — MGNREGA was catapulted from its “wet dog” stature in mid 2004 to top dog within no time as it became the first item on the National Common Minimum Programme of the newly elected UPA government. By the time, it was legislated as an Act of Parliament in August 2005, its critics wanted to add to Hugo, “and nothing more dangerous as well.”
Paradoxically, the most appropriate starting point for recounting its story is the statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last February on the floor Parliament. In it, the PM mocked the Congress for having to resort to a programme like MGNREGA even 60 years after Independence. He reportedly said, “My political acumen has told me to keep it alive as a monument to your failures since Independence. After 60 years, you are still making people dig holes.’’
If one ignored the mocking tone of the PM for a moment, his statement that day in Parliament captured the harsh truth not just about the Congress’s rule in the past but also and more importantly, the economic reality of
modern day democratic India. Ironically, Modi’s statement also carries in it the rationale for the programme.
In the lead up to the 2004 general elections, the BJP-led NDA government had been running the “India shining” campaign and it was widely expected to return to power. Yet, the rural reality had been worsening and there were
demands for some kind of food-for-work type of programme at the national level. The beleaguered Congress was also in the process of framing its manifesto. The idea of a rural jobs scheme appealed to Manmohan Singh and Jairam Ramesh who were drafting the manifesto.
However, then something rather unexpected happened. The BJP lost, notwithstanding the hype leading up to the elections. Suddenly, the Congress found itself partnering the Left parties to form a new entity –the United Progressive Alliance — and, unsurprisingly, a rural jobs guarantee legislation shot up to the very top of the agenda. The fortunes of the “wet dog” had changed way too fast for its ideological opponents to react.
Now, let’s return to the mocking tone in the PM’s statement because it too tells us an aspect of the MGNREGA story. It is important to note that when Minister of Rural Development Raghuvansh Prasad Singh presented the bill in
Parliament, it was met with roaring applause. In fact, the bill was passed by a voice vote because there was pin-drop silence when the Speaker asked for the opponents to say ‘nay’.
That does not necessarily mean there was no opposition. Rather, it meant that no party could afford to publicly disparage the scheme, including the BJP.
Between 2005 and 2009, the scheme’s scope was expanded as it resonated with the rural poor. It is also believed to be one of the key reasons why Manmohan Singh’s rag-tag coalition managed to upstage the BJP yet again in the 2009 national elections.
By the time UPA-II reached its mid-term, it had lost all moral authority, plagued as it was by countless scams and scandals. This was also a time when economic growth faltered, especially in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. The deceleration in the national GDP growth as well as individual incomes resulted in open public disapproval of MGNREGA.
As such, by the time the Modi poll campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections got underway, the mood was stridently against MGNREGA or, for that matter, any such “entitlement” scheme. Its opponents spared no opportunity to run it down as a scheme that was not only financially wasteful but also morally corrupting. According to some, it made the rural poor “lazy”.
However, the two years of back-to-back droughts have transported the BJP, and indeed the entire political class, back to August 2005 when MGNREGA was passed. The rural economy is bust and there is considerable misery and
anger. The scheme is now, more than in 2005, the best tool available with the government to allay the short-term concerns of the rural poor.
And that is why Modi and the BJP are now feting ‘the monument’ to the UPA’s ‘failures’ as the nation’s pride.
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