Rahul Gandhi’s promise of minimum income guarantee may be radical, but the Congress party under him had taken that leap in imagining its version of a welfare state over the last six months to a year leading up to victory in the three Hindi heartland states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Monday’s announcement by Rahul, coupled with the promise of a national farm loan waiver, marks a return to a more aggressive UPA politics. The UPA I and II governments had delivered path-breaking social justice schemes including MGNREGA (rural job guarantee), right to food and right to information. NREGA along with the Rs 60,000-crore loan waiver for farmers played a major role in the Congress’s victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Express Explained: Timing and significance of Rahul’s promise of a minimum guaranteed income
Rahul may not have revealed the finer details of his promise of providing minimum income guarantee to poor, but the Congress think tank tasked with drawing up the party’s manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections has been on the idea for some time. Sources said the manifesto would likely bring “40 per cent” of the population under the minimum income guarantee scheme. This will include “small farmers”.
We cannot build a new India while millions of our brothers & sisters suffer the scourge of poverty.
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.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) January 28, 2019
Incidentally,Gandhi himself admitted, over a year ago, that UPA’s 2004 vision had a ‘sell-by date’ of 10 years, and it “was already not working” by 2010-11. “The vision that we had laid out in 2004 was designed, at best, for a 10-year period. And it was pretty clear that the vision that we had laid out in 2004… by the time we arrived in 2010-11, it was already not working,” he had said at the University of California, Berkeley in September 2017.
In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the Congress manifesto not only promised farm loan waivers, which the governments announced no sooner they were formed, but also unemployment allowances. The unemployment allowance promised in Madhya Pradesh is as high as Rs 10,000, and in Rajasthan it is Rs 3,500. The Chhattisgarh Congress too included such a dole in its manifesto, but did not provide details.
While the timing of Rahul’s announcement is seen an an attempt to pre-empt the government from proposing an Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all poor in the interim budget — the Economic Survey for 2016-17 had already talked about the idea of a sovereign wealth fund and citizen’s dividend, party leaders said minimum income guarantee is a logical extension of the right-based initiatives taken by the UPA governments.
UBI for 40 per cent of the population at the bottom, that will include small farmers, is one of the ideas under consideration,” a senior Congress leader told The Indian Express. Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who heads the manifesto committee, said the party will give more “details of the plan” in the manifesto. He maintained that the party will find the resources to implement the scheme. “The poor of India has the first right to the country’s resources,” he said.
Congress leaders were quick to describe the idea of minimum income guarantee a game changer. Chidambaram called Gandhi’s announcement historic which will mark a turning point in the lives of the poor.
“The principle of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been discussed extensively in the last two years. The time has come to adapt the principle to our situation and our needs and implement the same for the poor. We will explain our plan in the Congress manifesto. 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,” he said.
Gamechanger, but funds a test
Rahul Gandhi’s minimum income guarantee promise ahead of elections is a powerful idea. It has not been undertaken in a sustained manner anywhere in the world. With this announcement, he has taken the first mover advantage. The idea of universal basic income itself is untested, but the biggest challenge will be to raise the money required.
While Gandhi had been talking about addressing the issue of unemployment and lack of job creation and waiver of farm loans, the Congress’s election narrative so far had not specifically thrown an idea at the poor, an amorphous entity which was at the centre of its campaign narrative both in 2004 and 2009. The party’s campaign slogan for 2004 was ‘Congress Ka Haath, Garibon Ke Saath’. Five years later in 2009, the party modified it to ‘Aam Aadmi Ke Badhte Kadam.Har Kadam Par Bharat Buland’.
In 2014, the party, however, shed the terms aam aadmi and garib — not surprisingly since the AAP had by then emerged as a force in Delhi — and moved to a generic tagline ‘Main Nahin, Hum’ (it’s not me, it’s us). Be it NREGA, Right to Food, The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, the law to give legal sanction to street vendors across the country, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, National Rural Health, Right to Education and Forest Rights Act —- the UPA decade has been all about social security programmes and welfare politics. And Gandhi has signalled a return to the tried and tested planks.