Until now, the BJP was acting and the Congress was merely reacting to the agenda set by regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Modi demonetised high value currency. The Congress called it a disaster. Modi government introduced the Goods and services Tax (GST). Calling it a Gabbar Singh Tax, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said that he would bring an improvised version. There was no in principle objection to the GST. In fact, former finance minister and senior Congress leader P Chidambaram called this mega tax reform as authored by the Congress.
Modi brought in the constitutional amendment reserving 10 percent for economically weaker sections. Despite expressing reservation over the political intent of the move, the Congress had to fall in line and support the measure as it cannot afford to antagonise the upper castes.
Thus, on almost every occasion, Congress was caught responding to the agenda set by BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Such a reactive strategy will not yield any electoral dividend as the electorate finds it hard to comprehend what the Congress is really offering them. At best, it can help create an anti-incumbency for Modi. The Congress cannot be the chief beneficiary of this unless it is in a direct fight with BJP. The results of several elections and by-elections since 2014 stand testimony to this.
But for the first time in the recent past, the Congress led by Rahul made the BJP respond to its agenda. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was brought in. The BJP leaders were seen running from pillar to post to say everything they could. The frantic response of the saffron brigade only indicates that they acknowledge the impact of Priyanka much before the people deliver their verdict. But this is merely political and confined to the political slugfest between the BJP and the Congress. The people do not have any direct stakes in this war of words over Priyanka's entry.
Rahul last night launched another salvo by announcing that the Congress, if voted to power, would bring in minimum income guarantee scheme. Truly speaking, this is not a Congress innovation. It is no different from the much touted Universal Basic Income scheme (UBI) discussed at length in the earlier Economic Survey presented by Modi regime. However, the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley rejected the idea, calling it unimplementable.
The timing of Rahul's announcement is also significant for many reasons. Of course, the elections are round the corner, every political party has to invent something afresh to lure voters. But there's more with regards to the timing. The Modi government is to present budget on 1 February. Normally, the parliamentary conventions tell us that governments should only present an interim budget called vote-on-account in an election year. This is to allow the government assuming office after elections to pursue its own public finances trajectory.
Though there is no constitutional mandate that prevents an incumbent government from presenting a full budget, it is not fiscally prudent and politically upright to do so. The government cannot make any big policy announcements or launch new schemes in an interim budget. The vote-on-account normally confines to payouts on the account of salaries, pensions, debt servicing and other routine administrative expenses. But all indicators point to the BJP government laying to rest these time-tested parliamentary conventions and bringing out a full budget. The ruling party leaders may defend this as the "confidence of the party" to return to power post the 2019 polls.
The Opposition is certainly perturbed over the Modi government's attempt to use the budget to make election eve promises that can have a positive impact on ruling party's political fortunes. Obviously, the ruling party has this additional advantage.
In a bid to checkmate the BJP's grand plan, the Congress president came out with the promise of minimum income guarantee as his unique selling proposition (USP) for the 2019 elections. Whether or not it will impact voters remains anyone's guess. But the Congress scored over its rival by setting an agenda around its poll promise and forcing the BJP to respond.
In fact, reports indicate that the BJP was preparing to unravel few more goodies to lure the electorate. Ravi Shankar Prasad made it very clear in Parliament that the Modi government has many more "sixes to hit" before the elections. As per sources in the BJP, the government was contemplating a direct cash support to farmers on the lines of Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao's Rythu Bandhu scheme that worked wonders in the recent state Assembly elections where the government credited Rs 8,000 per acre for every farmer, irrespective of his or her economic and land holding status.
The Modi government is also expected to raise the personal income tax limit to Rs 5 lakh, thus fulfilling a long-standing demand of the middle class, which has been a core electoral constituency of BJP and especially Modi. In a bid to thwart all this, the Congress president came out with this major policy announcement a few days before the budget. The victory of Congress in three Hindi heartland states provided the perfect backdrop to the election eve announcement.
The Congress-led UPA regime enacted National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which guaranteed not only 100 days of work, but even a minimum wage. The Congress hopes that given this history, it can convince the voters of its intentions. Now, the electorate has to decide whether it believes this promise of Congress and render its judgement. For now, the grand old party succeeded in piloting the election agenda.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2019 16:14:31 IST