With less than two weeks to go before the first phase of Lok Sabha elections kick off on 11 April, the battle lines have been drawn and the narratives have been set.
The election campaign features two narratives. The Congress and Opposition parties are focusing on the state of the economy and jobs, while the BJP-led NDA is trying to make it a presidential contest, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm as a decisive, strong leader. The Opposition claims that India must be “saved” from a “megalomaniac” who has wrecked the economy, while the BJP stresses on nationalism and Modi as its signifier — the only leader who may take India to its destiny of becoming ‘Vishwa Guru (global reformer and teacher)'.
The narratives tell us a lot about the two camps — their target segment, approach to campaigning and their idea of India. Every national election needs a pan-national narrative that may cut across regional, cultural, class and caste barriers of a vast, complex, heterogeneous nation. Congress has decided that the issue of poverty will throw a stiff challenge at Modi. Accordingly, it has embarked on a Garibi Hatao 2.0 campaign by resurrecting Indira Gandhi’s campaign slogan from 1971.
Congress bets that its promise — of handing out a dole of Rs 6,000 per month directly into the bank accounts of the poorest 20 percent of India’s households — will be a game changer and enough to vote it back to power. The scheme, NYAY, acronym for Nyuntam Aay Yojana, will put the exchequer under a burden of Rs 3.6 lakh crore, according to a calculation that it will benefit 5 crore family units (comprising 25 crore individuals on an average).
There are myriad questions around the scheme which the party has not answered or deliberately kept vague, taking recourse to generalised statements such as “it is doable”, “we have consulted the best economists and they have backed the plan”, or “we will do the math when we come to power”.
Not just lack of granular details, there is confusion over the scheme itself among senior leaders of the party. While Congress president Rahul Gandhi has claimed that his government, if voted to power, will put the differential between a family’s actual earning and the minimum income guarantee threshold of Rs 12,000 per month (in other words, a top-up scheme), his party colleagues and data analytics chief Praveen Chakravarty have claimed that every beneficiary will get Rs 6,000 each, or Rs 72,000 annually.
This confusion is just one problem that plagues the scheme. There is no clarity on whether this scheme will subsume other subsidies that the poorest are entitled to. Econmist Surjit Bhalla says the amount of Rs 6,000 a month is just an “update of the Tendulkar poverty line, and this official minimum income line has been in existence for more than a decade.” In his column for Financial Express, Bhalla writes Congress’s proposal “is a transfer of poverty line income to each family—and half of survival income!”
This columnist had pointed out in a recent piece that adjusted with inflation and likely graded unfolding of the plan, the payout is likely to be less than the stated amount and nothing more than a sleight of hand to generate headlines.
There are other issues as well. If the scheme exists as a payout over and above the subsidies that the poor are entitled to, the burden on the exchequer will be too much to handle and result in inflationary pressures on the Indian economy. Inflation hits poor the hardest. So, effectively, the scheme will be an equivalent of giving via one hand and taking away via the other. If taxes are increased on the middle class to generate the revenue, that would be politically suicidal and if the rich are taxed exclusively, they may vote with their feet and leave Indian shores, hitting private investment generation.
Conversely, if the scheme subsumes subsidies and replaces them, there could be social unrest among the segment that is denied both the subsidies and the Nyay payout. And families that miss the cut by a whisker will be resentful that they missed receiving thousands of rupees from the government just because they earn a few hundred more than the cut-off figure of Rs 12,000 per month.
Finally, the scheme’s effectiveness depends on the accuracy of data. As a Livemint editorial points out, “the country lacks reliable income data on its citizens, and this problem is especially acute lower down the scale,” therefore identifying the “poorest 20 percent” is easier said than done. Besides, self-employment and dynamic nature of income add to the complexity of the calculation.
While all these problems around the scheme have been documented — that makes Nyay decidedly less appealing than it appears at first — Congress faces another issue. It’s the narrative of Garibi Hatao 2.0, that Rahul called a “final assault on poverty”. It is a math of diminishing returns when it comes to political dividends. Though India is still home to many people struck by poverty, it is no longer the address for the world’s largest number of poor. Latest studies show that India has ceded its top spot to African nations such as Nigeria and the gap between the two countries is widening.
Which is to say that more and more people are being dragged out of extreme poverty in India — faster than countries where population is growing faster than economies. An article in The Washington Post, quoting calculations by the World Poverty Clock, points out that “extreme poverty rises in Nigeria by six people each minute… (while) the number of extreme poor in India drops by 44 people a minute.”
The article also gives two interesting data points. One, only five percent of India’s 1.3 billion people are “extremely poor” (the targeted segment of Congress’ scheme) and by 2021, that figure will drop to less than three percent of the population. This indicates that as a pan-national electoral issue and tool for gaining political dividends, “poverty’s” role will increasingly lessen. That is good news for the nation and bad news for parties that use “poverty politics” as a business model to stay politically relevant.
BJP’s narrative of nationalism has as its focus quite a different pan-national sentiment — nationalism. Though considered somewhat of an elitist issue as a poll plank compared to quotidian issues of daily life that affects the electorate, nationalism could defy conventional wisdom and become a big factor in the upcoming polls because the Indian economy is growing faster and pulling more people out of poverty. This, in effect, creates a burgeoning middle class (a term applied loosely and its dynamic nature is acknowledged) that are more interested in concepts such as national glory, national security and national pride.
Though in India, the term ‘middle class’ is more amorphous than perhaps in other emerging economies and their purchasing power varies wildly between various sub-segments, the trajectory is towards a richer economy and a subsequent rise in the personal and household incomes of this segment.
BBC quotes a paper by economists Sandhya Krishnan and Neeraj Hatekar to point out that 600 million people, or more than half of India’s population, “belong to the middle class”. The article breaks down the segment into “lower middle” and “upper middle”, and then quotes another paper by Devesh Kapur, Neelanjan Sircar and Milan Vaishnav to conclude that this segment is “upwardly mobile” and “aspirational”.
Let us now see what the BJP is trying to do. Through a presidential campaign focused on Modi's personality, the party is trying to tap into the ambition and aspiration of this segment. Modi, here, is projected as the only leader capable of achieving the collective ambition of a nation that has remained subjugated for too long and is now slowly waking up to its potential.
The Balakot airstrikes where Indian fighter jets penetrated deep into Pakistani airspace and hit terror targets, Mission Shakti that involved India showcasing its emergence as a space power and joining the super elite club of countries with anti-satellite weaponry — feed the sentiment of a giant waking up and reminding the world of its capability, and Modi is the man who is engineering it all.
Now, if a nation is rapidly progressing towards pulling people out of poverty and expanding its middle class base, which of these two narratives is likely to get more traction? Professor Ashutosh Varshney writes in The Indian Express that “India is perhaps headed towards its first national security election ever. Security will compete with unemployment and farm distress as a critical election issue.”
In the battle of narratives between Garibi Hatao 2.0 and a redemptive vision of a nation realising its potential, it is the latter that has more appeal in the eyes of its most important segment. The BJP believes it has a better bet here.
Updated Date: Mar 28, 2019 17:06:43 IST