Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s announcement of a minimum income support plan for the poorest segment of the people of the country is the biggest and most ambitious election promise made till now. It is different from past promises like ‘garibi hatao’ and ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’, which were actually slogans or statements of general intent. The Nyunatam Aay Yojna (Nyay) is more specific than those, although it still lacks many details. The proposal is to make a direct payment of Rs 72,000 crore annually to 50 million families to bring their monthly income up to Rs 12,000. The 250 million individual beneficiaries would belong to the poorest 20% of households in the country. The Congress has presented it as the biggest anti-poverty plan of the country, one that would provide a sense of justice to the poor.
Though the scheme is still short on many details, in the immediate, it has the potential to change the narrative of the election campaign to the most basic issues faced by the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP have tried to whip up nationalist sentiment through emotive use of the IAF strike on Balakot and to take electoral advantage of issues such as Ram temple and the Sabarimala issue ahead of the elections. The Congress plan will hopefully bring the focus back to the real issues facing the people, especially the rural distress. The Congress has already promised a universal healthcare scheme and 33% reservation for women in government jobs. Elections should be fought on issues like livelihood, just and equitable development, jobs, equal opportunities and inclusive social policies, not on divisive and polarising issues and invented themes.
The Congress is yet to flesh out the details of the plan. It is estimated that it will involve an annual expenditure of Rs 3.6 lakh crore. Questions have been raised whether the existing subsidies and welfare schemes will be retained or discontinued. Other issues to be considered are how the beneficiaries are to be identified, with different standards existing to define the poverty line, and how the scheme will impact the fiscal situation. These need to be made clear in the coming days. But it is beyond doubt that the direct income support plan is a welcome idea and has wide support among economists. The Congress scheme has also been vetted by experts. Former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian had proposed such a scheme in the Economic Survey for 2016-17. The Narendra Modi government is actually implementing a smaller and limited version of it now. So, the BJP’s dismissal of the proposal as ‘bluff’ is disingenuous. Basic income support is an idea that is being tried out by many countries, including developed countries, and may well be one whose time has come. All parties should seriously debate the issues surrounding the idea.