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#PollVault: Congress Pivots to Income Guarantee, Rattled BJP Calls NYAY 'Deception'

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New Delhi: Congress president Rahul Gandhi finally breathed some life into his party’s election campaign on Monday with the promise of a guaranteed minimum income for the poorest quintile of the population, a move senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and finance minister Chowkidar Arun Jaitley promptly declared to be a “bluff”.

Ever since the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s suicide bombing of the CRPF convoy at Pulwama, the Congress has struggled to find its feet. The party which had parlayed its victories in the assembly elections of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan into a determined push for opposition unity across several states found itself on the defensive. Worse, it has allowed short-term considerations to come in the way of the kind of alliances it needs to establish in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and even Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh if it is to make a serious dent in the BJP’s seat tally.

Against this backdrop, the Congress desperately needed a forward-looking issue to build its election campaign around and the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, or NYAY, could well be what the doctor ordered.

To be sure, the practical aspects of implementation appear formidable. It is not clear how the beneficiaries will be selected and their incomes measured. What is on offer is a guarantee of a minimum monthly income of Rs 12,000 per poor family based on a fixed handout of Rs 6,000 a month for a family that is assumed to be already earning Rs 6,000.

But as a promise, it has been made with a lot more commitment and detail than the ‘jumlas’ about job creation or the return of black money Chowkidar Narendra Modi threw into the mix during the 2014 campaign. The ‘Rs 15 lakh in every person’s bank account’ never made it to the BJP’s manifesto and the truth is that Modi himself also spoke about it in a purely rhetorical vein; yet the parivar’s footsoldiers took that assurance to the masses, thereby sowing the seeds of discontent at the betrayal which inevitably followed.

What gives the Congress proposal added traction is that Modi himself had broached the idea of a minimum guaranteed income (for farmers) in the government’s last budget, albeit pegged at such a low level as to be virtually meaningless. By contrast, Rs 6,000 a month will be seen by most poor families as a substantial sum.

The big question, of course, is what existing social welfare programmes would a Congress-led government gut in order to pay for NYAY? Since the figure of Rs 6,000 is pegged on the target family already earning a similar amount from a scheme like NREGA, the employment guarantee programme can surely not be considered expendable. But the public distribution system (PDS) may come under pressure, with the removal of subsidised foodgrain prices adding to the inflationary effect of the cash infusion.

Also read | The Time for a Minimum Income Guarantee in India Has Come

Apart from the attractiveness of the proposed yojana itself, NYAY has the added benefit of bringing the spotlight back to the plight of India’s poor and away from the national security focus that Modi and his ministers are trying to push. The opposition parties know the BJP is vulnerable on the issue of unemployment and rural distress, and that is where they would like to train their guns.

Having decided on his key campaign theme, Rahul Gandhi now has to decide whom he wants to direct that campaign against. Even as the task of clinching an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi remains unfinished, the Congress president has been busy campaigning in Kerala and West Bengal against the Left and the Trinamool Congress – whose support the Congress will surely need if it should ever come close to forming the next government.

In Assam, without much effort from the Congress itself, the problem of dividing the anti-BJP votes has been contained somewhat by the All India United Democratic Front declaring that it will only be contesting the Barpeta, Dhubri and Karimganj seats. In the 2014 election, the Congress lost to the BJP in two seats – Nowgong and Mangaldoi – thanks to a strong showing by the AIUDF. Similarly, the absence of an AUDF candidate from seats like Silchar and Kaliabor, which the Congress won in 2014, will make it easier for the party to retain them again this time.

Partisan governor, and airline 

As BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when the Babri Masjid was demolished back in December 1992, Kalyan Singh demonstrated his contempt for the law and constitution and had his knuckles gently rapped by the Supreme Court for contempt.

As governor of Rajasthan, he demonstrated his contempt towards constitutional propriety when he told reporters, “Hum sabhi log BJP ke karyakarta hain aur iss naatey se hum zaroor chahengey ke BJP vijayee ho. Sab chahengey ek baar phir sey kendra mein Modi-ji pradhanmantri banein. Modi-ji ka pradhanmantri ban-na ye desh ke liye avashyak hai, samaaj ke liye avashyak hai (We are all BJP workers, so we will want the BJP to win. Everyone will want Modi to become the PM again. Modi becoming the PM is necessary for the nation and the society).”

Though governors are political appointees, they are expected to remain politically neutral and not take a stand in favour of one party or another.

On Monday, the national carrier, Air India, also courted controversy by printing photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani on boarding passes, ostensibly as an advertisement for the Vibrant Gujarat summit.

After an outcry, the airline said it would stop this practice, which may said was a violation of the model code of conduct in force for the elections.

A novel form of protest

PTI reports that farmers in Nizamabad, Telangana, have hit upon a novel form of protest against the policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao: “Over 200 tumeric and ‘jowar’ (sorghum) farmers filed their nominations in Nizamabad protesting the ‘failure’ of the Centre and the state government to ensure remunerative prices for their produce, taking the total number of candidates in the constituency to 245.”

In the 1996 Lok Sabha election, 480 people from Nalgonda filed their nominations as a form of protest against the lack of government attention towards water quality in the region. Shortly thereafter, the Election Commission hiked the value of the deposit a candidate must make in order to file his or her nomination as a means of discouraging such protests.