Is Rahul Gandhi’s Minimum Income Guarantee His Biggest Blunder Yet?


Is Rahul Gandhi’s Minimum Income Guarantee His Biggest Blunder Yet?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Rahul Gandhi’s expression has always been a bit of a mystery to us. Is it the arrogance of a man with an unflinching belief in his entitlement? Or is it the harrowed diffidence of someone thrust into a world he did not ask for? Or – if you are a true believer in RaGa and all his glory – is it the self-assured air of a statesman both humbled by his access to power and determined to do right by it?

There used to be a time, about a decade ago, when it seemed inevitable that this carefully moulded political scion would ascend to his ordained birthright as Prime Minister. But then, his fairy-tale journey started to go off script. Scams started taking their toll on the credibility of the party and Modi – with an effective record in developing Gujarat– seemed like a much better bet for a nation looking to upscale economically.

Questions were asked whether Rahul Gandhi was in fact the mastermind of the election victories in 2004 and 2009 after all, or whether he just rode his mother’s coattails. Focus shifted to his sister, who suddenly seemed a more capable and sensible mascot for the party to rally behind. But Rahul Gandhi persisted through it all and continues to use his voice to try and convince us of his worthiness. He knows that his moment will eventually come.

His announcement of a Minimum Income Guarantee made earlier this week was not this moment.

Through a myriad of missed points, failed jokes, and poor wordings, Rahul Gandhi has become a poster boy for the Congress’ disconnect with the common man.

Far from cementing our faith that he knows what he’s doing, Rahul Gandhi’s last-ditch attempt to win voters before the general elections was as bland in impact as it was vague in details. It was the political equivalent of screaming “I can pay you!” to a man about to shoot you in the head, in the hope that it stalls him long enough for you to think of a better plan.

Before we get into the absurdity of this political promise, let us quickly explain what is (probably) on offer.

The Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG), will pay money directly into the bank accounts of families deemed to be living below the poverty line. Ironically, by RaGa’s own definition, the poverty line is an imaginary line that people can will themselves to rise above, if they only change their thought process. Nonetheless, if you have concerns about the brevity of the explanation I have given, you’re not alone. We’re still guessing as to the exact execution of this promise, considering there is no clear consensus on the definition of the poverty line, nor any unanimously accepted estimate of how many Indians reside below it. Further, it made no mention of the existing scheme for rural employment (MGNREGA) and whether RaGa’s grand scheme would work in tandem with this or replace it completely. Incidentally, neither option is without far-reaching consequences.

Leaving the impact and the practicality of RaGa’s political Hail Mary aside, his strategic timing for the announcement is equally perplexing.

It is no secret that the Congress is desperate to regain power. The alacrity with which they announced farm loan waivers following victories in state elections last year told us this. With nothing else to really showcase, it seems that handing citizens money – whether by loan waivers or bank deposits – is the only short-term option they have to swing favour their way. But considering the BJP retaliated with its own farm loan waivers and that they will also be presenting a budget shortly, it seems odd that Rahul Gandhi could not wait a few more days to reveal his trailblazer of a plan.

Perhaps he was too excited about it and could not help but blurt it out. Or maybe he felt it was structured so delicately that the BJP would be unable to replicate a similar promise on such short notice. Whatever the reason, it would appear that all he has done is push the BJP to mirror a similar promise and drive our otherwise healthy economy further down an already dangerous path. Our best hope is that the BJP retaliates in a more mature manner and uses the complete lack of detail in RaGa’s plan to showcase its non-viability.

The subject of non-viability brings us back to the plan itself. Its spongy nature and slender grasp on details has had economists punching through various permutations and combinations to assess the impact it would have. Most estimates place the cost of such a plan at anywhere between 0.5 and 2 per cent of the GDP. When we consider that the government’s fiscal deficit target is 3.3 per cent, these numbers start looking rather scary. Again, we can’t say for sure whether Rahul Gandhi plans to finance this by abolishing existing schemes, but considering the largest comparable scheme – the MGNREGA – has been between 0.25 per cent and 0.3 per cent of the GDP, RaGa’s promise looks a little fiscally challenging.

The MGNREGA – which assures 100 days of employment to rural workers – has had its own fair share of critics. But most of this criticism lies in the execution and manipulation that the scheme has seen, rather than in its basic premise. As systems improve, the ability to more ably execute this scheme will do so too. In contrast, the MIG attempts to simply buy the poor over by giving them money. It is a cheap political stunt and a testament to Rahul Gandhi’s belief that India is a nation of freeloaders, rather than a people that seek fair employment at a fair price.

It has always surprised me that the party that prides dynasty politics and nepotism should brand itself a people’s party. Through a myriad of missed points, failed jokes, and poor wordings, Rahul Gandhi has become a poster boy for the Congress’ disconnect with the common man. The MIG announcement underlined this further and put forth, unequivocally, that this man is not fit to lead a nation.