Rahul on a roll with sops. Does Modi have a lot to give?

The Congress chief looks like he is working on a plan. He knows it will be a keenly contested, no-holds barred election.

By Aditya Sinha

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Published: Tue 29 Jan 2019, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Jan 2019, 8:16 PM

Within a week, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has shaken up politics in the run-up to the April parliamentary election. First, he announced his sister Priyanka would take a formal role in the party as general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). Then on Monday he promised a "minimum income guarantee to every poor person" in the country, if elected. Both announcements keep the Congress in the public eye as a party of ideas, particularly given India's rural distress and the unavailability of jobs for youngsters entering the workforce. Both announcements make the Congress appear energetic, in stark contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who increasingly looks uncomfortable in his public appearances (watch his eyes and the way they rapidly blink). Both announcements have galvanised his cadre. Even if neither announcement amounts to much in the end - the Congress is weak in UP, and the government may overtake the minimum income promise with a budget announcement of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) - it still looks as if Rahul Gandhi now sets the agenda.
Priyanka will oversee half of UP's 80 seats; her counterpart for western UP is Jyotiraditya Scindia, who staked claim to be chief minister of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, one of the three Hindi-speaking states the Congress snatched from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December. More importantly, she is leading from the front by taking on the BJP's two biggest administrators - Modi, who represents the holy city of Varanasi, and UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whose base is Gorakhpur. The Congress picked up 22 seats in eastern/central UP in 2009. The cadre is ecstatic over her arrival.
Despite speculation, Priyanka is unlikely to contest a parliamentary seat. According to a prominent local Congressman, her real target is the 2022 UP assembly election, where a revived party could play kingmaker in a state dominated by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Rahul himself indicated so during the announcement, saying that she was not just appointed for the "two months" till elections. She has an aggressive style and does not discourage comparisons with grandmother Indira Gandhi. BJP is scared and as usual has resorted to ad hominem attacks; but personalised attacks impress no one outside the core BJP vote.
A combination of factors brought Priyanka in, after three 'almosts' during the past two years. One, the Congress's back is to the wall so this election is a do-or-die one. Both Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah have spoken of a "Congress-free India", and they are perceived to be merciless. Rahul cannot afford to allow Modi to return to power with a parliamentary majority. Two, Modi himself provided an opportunity with the November 2016 demonetisation that has come back to haunt him. It caused agrarian distress as well as the loss of 11 million jobs (on top of the lack of job creation). It caused the BJP's ouster from three states in December.
Given this failure of governance, it made sense for Rahul to make the second announcement, of a minimum income guarantee. There has been talk of this for some time given the growing income disparities everywhere. The idea was floated in India, the last time by former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, in the Economic Survey two years ago. He spoke of a UBI, and the government was expected to announce it later this week. Rahul's announcement is likely a pre-emptive move. The details have been left for the election manifesto; if you take the poverty line to be around Rs500, then a family of four would require a minimum income of around Rs2,000 per month. It sounds a lot more achievable than Modi's promise back in the 2014 election, of putting Rs15 lakh in every account. It is a return to the era of populist schemes during Dr Manmohan Singh's time, when the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation (MGNREGA) programme was launched (as were the Right to Food act and the Right to Information) and farm loans of Rs600 billion were waived. It got Dr Singh re-elected.
Though Modi initially called MGNREGA a 'monumental failure', he has now quietly eaten crow: he gave MGNREGA Rs60,000 crore this financial year. It does nothing to erase the poor's memory of his being called a 'suit-boot ki sarkar' (government for the elite) by Rahul.
The Congress chief looks like he is working on a plan. He knows it will be a keenly contested, no-holds barred election. He also knows that Modi will pull a few cards from up his own sleeve. It looks increasingly likely that Modi will have no choice but to play the Ram temple card to win the electorally key state of UP. I would not be surprised if Rahul has anticipated this, and has a card of his own to play at the right moment.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist and author based in India

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