With his promise of minimum income guarantee at a public meeting in Chhattisgarh on Monday, Congress president, Rahul Gandhi has set the political agenda for the interim budget aka vote-on-account to be presented by second-time stand-in finance minister, Piyush Goyal on 1 February.
With speculations over the government considering going beyond convention in an election year and announcing fresh sops including ushering in Universal Basic Income in some form, the Congress realised that such an announcement in the Budget would be difficult to criticise and the BJP would run away with the kudos.
The party has seen the success of these schemes in some form or the other. Recently, the Telangana government's Rythu Bandhu scheme had a significant electoral impact. There is a possibility of a similar influence of Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation or KALIA scheme in Odisha.
The Jharkhand government too hopes to overcome anti-incumbency and rising unpopularity with Mukhya Mantri Krishi Yojana. Rahul's announcement, however, goes beyond these programmes because the promise of minimum guaranteed income is for all sections and not just farmers.
If the Congress party had not pre-empted such a possible declaration, Rahul may well have been presented with a fait accompli just as his party was caught in a bind when Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised adversaries by extending reservation to the economically poorer sections among the upper castes.
By making such a poll promise, the Congress stands to gain by claiming that its announcement forced the Modi government into accepting the demand. Contrarily, if the government makes no such announcement and after the build-up, if Goyal offers nothing that meets the expectations of the people, Rahul will be armed with a jumla which can be used at will during the party campaign.
In any case, Rahul has the advantage of being the challenger which was with Modi in 2014 and he either made promises which were not easy to meet or raised expectations of people without weighing the problems in case of being unable to deliver on pledges.
Back then, Modi was the challenger making a bid to storm the power citadel while the Congress was the incumbent defending a none-too-happy performance.
Now that the roles are almost completely reversed, Rahul has decided to embark on a bold path insofar as promises are concerned. We are possibly seeing the beginning of a new phase of politics where Modi will be paid back in the same coin.
But on Universal Basic Income, or what the Congress president declared, is not just his party's proposal. Modi's chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, who quit some months ago citing family commitments, while presenting the Economic Survey of FY2017 devoted an entire chapter on Universal Basic Income. He argued that the proposal if accepted by the government had the capacity to wipe "every tear from every eye".
Rahul took this forward by claiming that the introduction of his proposed scheme would ensure "there will be a minimum income in the bank account of every poor Indian. This means that nobody in India will stay hungry, or will be poor".
Immediately after the populist announcement, former finance minister, P Chidambaram tweeted "Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s announcement at the farmers’ rally in Chhattisgarh is historic and will mark a turning point in the lives of the poor".
If the government declares any sop or scheme which transfer a fixed amount every month to the bank accounts of the poor, the Congress will be able to claim that although the wheels of the government run on Modi's back, it was Rahul who steered the turn in policy and people's lives.
Rahul has not just seized the initiative with his announcement but has also quietly declared a new phase of aggressive campaigning where he is likely to not just criticise the Modi government and the prime minister personally, but will also begin showcasing his alternate model.
At Raipur, he reminded people that UPA had provided for minimum employment guarantee which Modi had initially wanted it to be scrapped. He also served a reminder to people right to food (security) and right to information provided under the Congress party's leadership.
Last year at one of his public interactions, Rahul candidly admitted that Congress' defeat in 2014 was somewhat precipitated by the party's inability to alter its wares even though the existing products were beyond their "sell-by date". Minimum income guarantee is one such 'new product' and possibly many more are on the anvil because we are witness to a more determined Congress.
It is not as if the BJP is the only one which has been outsmarted by the Congress for the moment. Rahul has obviously taken note of criticism at his party's failure to capitalise on the disenchantment with the BJP in the three states where the party lost power. Critics contended in the aftermath of the verdict that the Congress had failed to enthuse people with an alternative development model.
Rahul has realised that he must have an elaborate to-do list by the time his party begins changing gears on the campaign trail. This would enable the Congress to secure the confidence of people even in states dominated by satraps who are refusing to include the Congress in the anti-BJP alliance.
At the Unity of India rally at Kolkata's Brigade Ground the opposition leaders' speeches were low on content as barring criticism of Modi, how he has destroyed institutions and failed to deliver, no one offered a peep into what they proposed to do if they got a run to steer the government at the Centre.
By beginning to make public his manifesto, Rahul has taken the pole position as regional parties jostle at the starting block by positioning itself as a party capable of governance because among BJP's challengers only it has a national perspective. The others, on the other hand, remain limited to Modi hatao and local narratives.
The resurgence of ideas as evidenced in Rahul's new approach is somewhat reminiscent of Sonia Rahul's tactics in 2004 in which the slogan Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath was central to the pre-eminence of the Congress among opposition parties. In that election too, there was no clear alternative to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Congress president has refused to be drawn into a 'Modi versus who' debate so far and his ability to steer clear of this will be crucial to its performance.
Updated Date: Jan 30, 2019 08:07:24 IST