Speaking at an election rally in Uttarakhand’s Rudrapur on March 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a striking statement. He said that the reason and the root cause of poverty in India was the Congress. “Even the poor are saying, get rid of the Congress and poverty will automatically vanish,” he told crowds.
The PM’s words seemed to revise history through the lens of Modi and Amit Shah and their ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ world view. In the process, they showed that the BJP has been forced to grapple more directly with poverty as an election theme, something it thought it had addressed through the PM Kisan Yojna handouts and the Mudra loans for small businesses
Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s announcement of a minimum cash transfer of Rs 6,000 per month to five crore poor families under the NYAY scheme showed that the BJP no longer has the comfort of setting the agenda on the issue of poverty in the campaign. Indeed, Modi was forced to recall Indira Gandhi’s 'Garibi Hatao' slogan, if only to denigrate it, and his counter that the Congress was invested in poverty and keeping a section of Indians poor rang somewhat hollow given his government’s lacklustre performance on the economic front.
Seen from Modi’s perspective, he has had to prove his ‘development’ credentials’ to a swathe of middle class Indians who voted for him in 2014 – staying faithful at least on paper to the original idea of a Gujarat-like ‘achche din’ – while also being ever-mindful of the fact that Congress could at any time upstage him at reaching out to the poor. Remember how Rahul’s ‘Suit Boot Ki Sarkar’ jibe hit home and made the PM stay away almost instinctively from any measure that could be described as reformist. Therefore, for Modi, politically speaking, the problem is the Congress’ stand on poverty alleviation.
It comes as no surprise therefore that the Congress’ decision to go for broke with the pro-poor NYAY – after playing with soft Hindutva and mounting a corruption campaign against Modi– appears to have unnerved the BJP.
If Modi and the BJP were hoping to run away with a narrative built around the personal brand of the PM and his core values of strong leadership, nationalism, and Hinduvta – mixed in with promises of economic prosperity in New India – then this where they could be made to slow down.
Rahul Gandhi, in an inspired turn of phrase, has dubbed NYAY “a surgical strike on poverty”. That should definitely force those who have been dubbing him ‘pappu’ to wonder if the famed political instincts of the Nehru-Gandhi clan are finally kicking in.
Gandhi has also been maintaining that Modi had taken money from the poor through demonetisation and given it to the rich. He has tried to make a connection between ‘rich businessmen’ and Modi, alleging that the PM is in cahoots with the likes of Anil Ambani and Nirav Modi.
Priyanka Gandhi too has spoken about how the government is anti-poor. She alleged that Modi goes abroad and hugs foreign leaders but does not hug the poor. It insinuates that Modi has a disdain for the poor. Then the Gandhi siblings also speak of the promise that Modi supposedly made about putting Rs 15 lakh into the bank accounts of the poor. They ask repeatedly if Modi has indeed done that, or created two crore jobs, or given farmers the right prices for their produce.
Modi’s attempt so far has been to talk up his achievements and to remind people of what his government has already done for them– all this laced with a good dose of anti-Congressism. But what NYAY does is to project the Congress as the protector of the poor, and gives it a moral upper hand even as Modi accuses the party and its leaders of a culture of loot and corruption. It gives them the appearance of being actually concerned about the issues of the people, something that the party did not have back in 2014.
The question to ask now is how will Modi counter this promise of putting money directly into the accounts of the poor, beyond the attacks on the Congress itself. For all of Modi’s popularity and ability to connect with a cross-section of voters, the promise of an assured sum of Rs 72,000 a year for the foreseeable future for poor Indians will be hard to match. While voters may not want to waste their vote on a Nyay that may fall by the wayside with the Congress party (as against having a stable government and ‘strong’ PM by voting BJP), it does make the BJP’s attempt to run down the Congress look a little less convincing.
Modi’s current response is asking Indians to think of the nation rather than themselves as he did in weeks and months after demonetisation when the move came under intense criticism. But the Opposition may have found a brahmastra, and it’s not Priyanka Gandhi. Modi will have to think of something other than an anti-satellite missile to counter this particular surgical strike.