Rahul Gandhi. Picture credit to: The Wire
The main opposition party in India, the Congress party, has just promised to implement a “nationwide minimum income for the poor”, rolling out the unprecedent scheme starting as soon as May 2019, if it gets elected. The party’s president Rahul Gandhi, has announced this on Monday, while speaking to farmers in Chhattisgarh state, where Congress was elected after promising statewide loan waivers.
Critics from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently in power, dismiss this minimum income for the poor as a false promise from Congress, taken in a populist fever given the upcoming general elections, but Congress leaders have replied with the fact that they are fulfilling their promises on farm loan waivers in the states where they have been elected to recently. According to them, namely though BJP leader Ravi Schankar, this is just one more announcement, among many others which never saw the light of day. As Shankar speaks, though, regional leaders are fulfilling some of the Congress party regional electoral promises. Ashok Gehlot, just recently elected as chief minister of the Rajasthan region, India’s largest state located on the East side shouldered by Pakistan, just said on Monday that “whatever promises [Rahul Gandhi] made during assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarth, we are fulfilling them, be it farm loan waiver or allowance to unemployed youths.”
Rahul Gandhi has firmly stated: “Nobody will remain hungry and nobody will remain poor as all poor people will be entitled to a guaranteed income. We will do this in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and all other states as well. All you have to do is to give us an opportunity”. Particulars have not yet been revealed (for instance, what are the parameters defining “poor” in India), but this announcement from Congress comes on the wake of the 2016-2017 Economic Survey, which suggested the implementation of a basic income to support the bottom 75% of the population in terms of income. In that document, the scheme’s realization would include the rollback of several (conditional) subsidies.
Running up these last months to the general election, spirits are agitated. There has been speculation on whether Narenda Modi and his government would attempt to implement a nationwide basic income on this week’s presentation of the interim budget, as a response to farmers protests all over the country. That led some to think that Ghandi’s move was meant as a strike to turn the table and get Congress one step ahead facing the impending elections. Could be. However, government officials are sceptical about how to finance such a bold policy, without cutting on State essential services and unleashing “runaway inflation”, which discourages the belief that government will make history in only three months.
As expected, the Congress party leadership was quick to support Gandhi’s announcement, with messages and statements from Chidambaram, Sheila Dikshit and Bhalchandra Mungekar, all Congress heavyweights (Chidambaram occupied ministerial positions for ten years, from 2004 and 2014, and Sheila was the longest serving Chief Minister of Delhi). Chidambaram as stated that “the poor in India have the first charge on the resources of the country and the party will find the resources to implement the promise of Rahul Gandhi.” He has been nominated the Congress Manifesto chairman for the 2019 elections, steady on the belief that “now we should make a determined effort to wipe out poverty in India”.
Whoever gets to implement basic income in India, the proposal as it stands seems to be framed as a Negative Income Tax (NIT), since it is being direct to the poor. Arguably, the financing mechanism will expectedly use taxes and savings on welfare schemes to make direct cash transfers to those who fall below a certain poverty threshold. The next few months will be critical to Indian politics, and probably to the world’s social landscape. Right now, all eyes are on India. Sarath Davala, a long-standing basic income activist in India and internationally, has stated on Facebook:
“Indian National Congress, the main opposition party now announces Basic Income to the poor. Details are yet to be worked out. I cannot ask for more. Ironically though, our real challenge begins NOW – translating the idea plus evidence into concrete national policy without diluting the spirit of basic income.”
More information at:
Cherrupreet Kaur, “Rahul Gandhi’s mega poll promise: Minimum income for poor”, The Times of India, January 30th 2019
“Rahul’s announcement of guaranteed minimum income ‘historic’: Chidambaram”, The Times of India, January 30th 2019
“Rahul’s minimum income guarantee promise not meant to be implemented: BJP”, The Times of India, January 30th 2019
“After Rahul, Sheila too promises ‘minimum income’”, The Times of India, January 30th 2019