Even before finance minister Piyush Goyal presented the 2019 interim budget in the Lok Sabha on Friday, enthusiastic Bharatiya Janata Party members publicised that its election slogan for the upcoming general election will be “Abki baar Modi sarkar, 400 paar” – this time, Modi government will cross 400 Lok Sabha seats.

The slogan picked up speed after Goyal announced a series of sops in the budget in an obvious effort to placate two sections of society – farmers and the middle class – that were particularly disillusioned with the Modi government.

This disillusionment was evident in the recent assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh when the burning issue of farmers’ distress was centre stage. For a change, the Congress was able to set the agenda with its promise to implement a loan waiver for farmers, if voted to power. It followed this pledge with a recent announcement that it will provide a minimum income guarantee scheme aimed at poverty alleviation.

With the Congress taking a lead ahead of the next Lok Sabha election, the Modi government’s thunder had clearly been stolen, for it had long been rumoured that it was contemplating a version of the Telangana government’s income-support scheme for farmers. It was, therefore, no surprise when Goyal announced the BJP’s version of an income-support scheme for “vulnerable landholding farmer families, having cultivable land up to 2 hectares”. They will be entitled to a cash transfer of Rs.6,000 per year.

The middle classes were wooed with several tax benefits including a full tax rebate for those with an income up to Rs five lakh. In addition, a pension scheme for the unorganised sector was also unveiled by Goyal. While the tax sop will be implemented only next year, the Modi government is determined to see that the first instalment of Rs 2,000 reaches the beneficiaries before the elections.

Game changer – or jumla?

These announcements had an electrifying effect on demoralised BJP members who lost no time in hailing hail the budget as a “game changer”. The opposition dismissed it as a “jumla” budget. “It is not a vote on account but an account for votes,” remarked former finance minister P Chidambaram.

While the verbal duel between the two sides is set to become shriller in the coming days, there is no doubt that the Congress will have to go beyond denouncing the Modi government’s proposals. The party will have to keep ahead of its political opponent by unveiling a far more attractive and credible economic package in its election manifesto to address the current agrarian crisis and reach out to the rural poor, the unorganised sector and the small and medium industries.

The preparation of the manifesto is being taken extremely seriously by the Congress, and it seems to have realised the value of this document. The party is aware that instead of being dismissed as election rhetoric, the manifesto can actually win elections. Congress insiders pointed to the recent Chhattisgarh assembly poll which was won by the Congress primarily on its promise to waive farm loans and hike the minimum support price of farm produce. The Congress was initially lagging behind the BJP in the Chhattisgarh polls but the scenario changed dramatically in its favour after the release of its election manifesto.

The Congress has already set the ball rolling to demonstrate that it means business. It has ensured that its newly-elected governments in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were quick to announce a loan waiver for farmers within the time frame promised by the party.

Minimum income guarantee

More recently, Congress president Rahul Gandhi upped the ante when he announced at a rally in Chhattisgarh that if voted to power, the Congress will introduce a minimum income guarantee scheme to address poverty and provide relief to the “poorest of the poor.”

“The Congress party has decided that immediately after winning the 2019 elections, the government will provide a guarantee for minimum income to every poor. This means there will be a minimum income in the bank account of every poor Indian. This means that nobody in India will stay hungry, or will be poor,” Rahul Gandhi declared. The details of this scheme will be provided in the party’s election manifesto, currently under discussion.

Rajeev Gowda, Rajya Sabha MP and convenor of the party’s manifesto committee, insisted that unlike the cash transfer scheme announced by Goyal on Friday, their scheme is far more broad-based. “As a concept, our plan will be far more inclusive as it does not leave out anyone. It will also cover landless farm labour which is not so in the government’s proposals,” he maintained.

The Congress election manifesto will focus on farmers’ woes and jobs. Besides promising a loan waiver for the debt-ridden farmer, the Congress is expected to promise the implementation of the MS Swaminathan report, which had made a series of recommendations on making the agriculture sector more profitable, ensuring adequate credit flow to farmers and providing a reasonable minimum support price for their produce.

“There is also a suggestion that farmers above 60 years of age be paid a monthly pension to provide social security to them,” said Rajni Patil, Congress general secretary and member of the manifesto committee. She said this proposal is based on Maharashtra’s Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana which provides financial assistance to destitute persons , widows, invalid persons and orphan children. However, it is not clear if this can be implemented along with the proposal to introduce a minimum income guarantee scheme.

While the Congress has launched an offensive against the Modi government for not delivering on its promise of creating more jobs, its attack will acquire a further edge after the latest leaked figures showed that the country’s unemployment rate is at a four-decade high.

But the Congress is still grappling with suggestions on improving employment and creating jobs. “There are no ready solutions for this – basically we have to ensure a 10% growth rate in order to create jobs,” remarked a member of the Congress Working Committee.

The Congress election manifesto committee has set up various sub-groups which have been asked to hold consultations with different stakeholders, like civil society groups, academics, farmers and women, to get feedback from them. The subjects being covered include urban housing, sports, the state of the economy, the problems of minorities and the grievances of ex-servicemen. In addition, the committee has also set up a dedicated website to invite suggestions from the common man.

Congress insiders said the manifesto will not merely focus on vague promises but also provide details of specific programmes and how it plans to rebuild the economy. At the same time, the final document will also give timelines and the budgets for the implementation of the various proposals so that the party can be held accountable if it fails to deliver.

Gowda said the committee, headed by former finance minister P Chidambaram, is still in the process of collating all the suggestions after which it will see how these can be used in party programmes. Similarly, he said, the panel will take a close look at the Modi government’s budget and work out how the Congress responds.

For the present, the Congress has begun by puncturing holes in these proposals with party president Rahul Gandhi tweeting “Dear NoMo, 5 years of your incompetence and arrogance has destroyed the lives of our farmers. Giving them Rs 17 a day is an insult to everything they stand and work for.”

Also see:

‘NewREGA’? What we know so far about Rahul Gandhi’s Minimum Income Guarantee promise

P Chidambaram interview: Minimum income plan aims to wipe out poverty, MGNREGA had limited objective