If the Congress comes to power, Rahul Gandhi promised on March 25, each of India’s poorest 20% families would get a minimum yearly income of Rs 72,000. He added that the scheme, called NYAY, will be detailed in the party’s manifesto, expected to be released on April 2. It was seen as the Congress’s biggest bet to win the upcoming election.
Three days later, Narendra Modi seemed to respond in kind when he announced that India had shot down a live satellite. Mission Shakti, as the operation was named, had propelled India into an elite club of nations capable of fighting space wars, the prime minister added. Again, it was seen as a move that could electorally benefit the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Are NYAY and Mission Shakti really the vote magnets they are made out to be? Not quite, at least in western Uttar Pradesh, which votes on April 11.
Across the parliamentary constituencies of Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Ghaziabad, Saharanpur, Baghpat, Meerut, Kairana and Gautam Buddh Nagar, most voters Scroll.in spoke with were not even aware of the Congress’s minimum income promise or the Modi government’s space success.
NYAY: ‘Politicians only make promises’
Pramod Dhankad, a shopkeeper in Badot, Baghpat, had not heard about NYAY and he blamed the media for not playing it up. “I did not read about it anywhere,” he said. “I remember the Congress making a similar promise, however, during elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where I think it helped them win.”
He saw no chance of NYAY being implemented, though. For one, Dhankad argued, Gandhi was unlikely to become the prime minister. For the other, the promise was merely “a gimmick to attract voters”. “Where will Rahul Gandhi get the money from even if he becomes prime minister?” he asked. “It is usual for politicians to make such promises but nobody ever fulfils them. Just look at what Modi promised in 2014. Has he delivered on any of his promises?”
In any case, Dhankad argued, a scheme like NYAY was economically unsound and politicians should come up with more feasible ways of tackling poverty. “Giving subsidies or distributing money won’t make India a superpower,” he explained. “Making people earn money through hard work alone will help the nation move forward.”
In Naya Gaon, around 50 km from Badot, Shyam Singh was similarly clueless about Gandhi’s plan. When told about it, he complained that politicians only make promises but never actually work for the poor. By way of example, Shyam Singh pointed out that he was yet to receive the Rs 2,000 under the PM Kisan Yojana, a farmer income support scheme announced in this year’s Union Budget.
Still, he said, there was a possibility Gandhi would keep his promise. “The problem is he will not become the prime minister,” Shyam Singh added. “His heart may be in the right place but I do not see the Congress winning the election.”
Not that he was against change, Shyam Singh clarified. Ideally, he said, governments should change every five years to keep them from taking the voters for granted. “Any new government will do more than Modi has done,” he added. “Political competition is good for the country.”
In neighbouring Kairana, none of the people Scroll.in spoke with had heard about NYAY. Most of them, however, blamed the Congress, rather than the media, for not publicising it. Some voters doubted the Congress would even have a scheme for the poor, repeating the BJP’s allegation that the grand old party had “not done anything for the poor in the last 60 years”.
Shiv Kumar, a BJP voter in Badalpur village, alleged that everything Gandhi said was a lie. “What did they do for the poor in 60 years?” he asked, meaning the Congress. “I am a supporter of the BJP and will not vote for the Congress even if they promise us the moon. The Gandhi family looted the nation for 60 years and I don’t trust them a bit.”
Ranbir Kumar, a daily wage labourer in Shamli, was unaware of NYAY as well. Told about it, he said he hoped to benefit from it. A few fellow labourers who had joined the conversation at the Shamli railway crossing nodded in approval. The Congress indeed helped the poor when it was in power, they said, so there was no reason to suspect its intentions regarding NYAY. They also recalled that work was easier to find during the Congress’s rule. “The Congress might have been corrupt, but their NREGA gave us work and we had enough to feed our families,” said Ranbir Kumar, referring to the Manmohan Singh government’s flagship rural employment guarantee scheme.
In Ghaziabad’s Muradnagar, Gautam said he didn’t expect any politician to work for the poor no matter what they promised. “I do not know what Rahul Gandhi has said he will do, but I do not expect any politician to work for the betterment of the poor,” said the owner of a sugarcane juice shop on NH 24 who goes by the single name. “I have no land and try to make ends meet by doing low paid jobs. I will only support Mayawati because she at least talks about us Dalits.”
At a nearby tea shop, RG Singh sat reading a newspaper. He was one of the very few people who had heard about NYAY, and he was not sold on it. “My question is where will he get the money for such an ambitious scheme?” he asked, referring to Gandhi.
How about taxing the rich a little more? “They are already paying so much tax,” RG Singh replied. “Does the Congress want to finish the top business houses to fulfil its promises?”
Seated beside him, Prabhu Kumar said he had not heard about the scheme until then but he doubted Gandhi would have announced it without working out the details. “If he has made such a promise, he might do it,” he said. But, Prabhu Kumar added, there was no chance of the Congress chief becoming prime minister.
“No matter what I will vote for Behenji,” he continued, referring to Mayawati. “Even if the Bahujan Samaj Party loses, I will again vote for her.”
As for Modi, Prabhu Kumar said he did not trust the prime minister since he had “failed to deliver on every promise he made” in 2014. “Where are Achhe Din Modi promised?” he asked. “I have not even received the Rs 2000 under PM Kisan Yojana. I have received nothing, so why should I vote for him?”
Rajbir Singh, a farmer leader from Mundet village in Kairana, backed Gandhi’s plan and said the Congress chief was “capable of doing something of this magnitude”. “The BJP is asking where will the Congress get all this money from. They will get it from where the BJP is getting money.” he said. “At least Rahul has consulted economists, unlike our prime minister who announced note ban because he and Amit Shah felt that it could finish off black money. Instead, they finished off our economy.”
Mohit Beniwal disagreed, claiming that NYAY would be “impossible to implement on the ground”. “By promising this, the Congress is thinking it will win this election as it did the Assembly polls in three states,” said the BJP’s general secretary for western Uttar Pradesh. “It is a jumla. They are making promises that are not feasible. Since they have no agenda they are resorting to such trickery.”
Mission Shakti: ‘Our priority must be to feed the poor’
It is the same with Mission Shakti. Only a few of the voters Scroll.in met in western Uttar Pradesh had heard about it and ever fewer thought it would have any impact on their daily lives. In fact, many did not even understand what a satellite was, how it helped them or why it was necessary to shoot one down. “Modi could not deliver on the ground and now he wants us to go to space to check his achievements,” Jitendra Huda, a farmer leader in Shamli, said sarcastically when told what Mission Shakti was all about.
For Tara Chand, a marginal farmer in Baghpat’s Dola village, it made “no sense to do something like this” to prove the country’s strength. “Our top priority must be to feed the poor, ensure better education to our children and good healthcare to all,” he said. “These are the things that make a nation great, not shooting down something that 90% of the population does not even understand what it is. Modi should first fulfil the promises he made to people who live on earth and then try and conquer space.”
Dhankad, who had heard about operation, thought it was “unbecoming of the prime minister” to not let the “real people” take credit. “He did not shoot down the satellite, scientists did,” Dhankad said. “It seemed as if Modi created the technology and fired the missile. Credit should be given to those who deserve it and not some politicians.”
One of Dhankad’s sons is in the Central Reserve Police Force and he said it hurt him “to see the BJP’s leaders indulging in petty politics by giving Modi credit” for the air strike on Pakistan and the surgical strike.
“They cannot give pensions to CRPF men but they take credit on their behalf,” he complained. “I can’t sleep at night because I have nightmares about my son, so it hurts even more when top leaders indulge in such politics. Our armed forces must be kept out of politics. Does Modi, Amit Shah or any other BJP leader have their relatives in the armed forces? They do not know what a father goes through while his son is posted at the border. Let all these MPs send one of their children into armed forces, then I will see whether they will indulge in such politics.”
At the Shamli railway crossing, though, a group of people who described themselves as BJP supporters said they were “excited about Mission Shakti” because it sent a strong message to Pakistan, China and the United States. Asked what exactly they thought Mission Shakti was, none managed a satisfactory answer. “Only Modi ji knows the details,” one of them said, “and that is enough for me.”