We are in the election conundrums again- the much waited ‘2019’ is here and already some regions in India voted on 11th of April. Political parties got super active a few months before the election, to put in place their ‘vision’ of running the country. In the climate of growing cynicism about politics, especially among the younger generation, it is an added challenge to the parties to woo the voters with various schemes and promises. On the other hand, because of its unique demographic specificities - caste violence, burgeoning inequalities, and gender disparities – India’s political parties also face challenges of grappling with a ‘balanced chord’.
This article takes into account the recently released manifestos of some of the major political parties, who are in the race of either taking helm at the centre or is believed to be playing a major role in this general election. Nonetheless, it is simply not enough to evaluate any manifesto with mere words it charts out and promises it makes. For, any manifesto must be treated as a historical document and must be placed in the context and time it appears before us. In my opinion, a scheme for generating employment is meaningless if the society at large faces ‘un-freedom’ under any government. For the purpose of this article, to begin with, I shall compare various promises doled out in the manifestos of Congress and BJP – especially for rural development. ‘India lives in its villages’- still, and yet to believe that the factors of rural development are static and constant is simply erroneous. For a very long time, especially since opening up of the Indian market in 1991, agrarian problems have been mounting in front of us. With promises of a certain kind and definition of ‘development’, India’s agricultural menace stands on the verge of a ‘civilisational crisis’, as economist P. Sainath has opined in his recent article. (Sainath, 2018) But before I begin, this must also be said that manifestos cannot also be judged simply by economic rigour, rather it needs ample political wisdom and ethical judgement to understand them.
BJP – The ruling party and its vision after five years
It is for the first time in the history of independent India that a political party with a majoritarian worldview ruled our people with an absolute majority. Also, since decades, no other political party could galvanize an absolute majority in the lower house of the parliament. Both the factors are intrinsic to my analysis of their political documents and promises they made to the rural Indian population in their ‘Sankalpa Patra’, for, after spending five years in power, enjoying almost ‘no hindrance from the opposition’, the party seems to have lost its vision vis a vis rural India. Let us see them one by one.
In their manifesto, BJP has claimed that it will extend the MGNREGA with agricultural work, which many have defined as a method to obfuscate the people further. It is, in fact, seen as a measure to weaken the scheme further, which has seen tremendous neglect from the successive governments since UPA II. In fact, in their last ‘interim budget’, the BJP has not allocated any extra amount to strengthen the project. With the threat of climate change and extreme drought, when the agricultural sector faces added challenges, MNGREGA should have been considered seriously. As can be seen from various data, the average working days under MNREGA has been waning – from a promised 100 days to something around 49 days in 2015-16 to further low at 45 days in 2017-18. On the other hand, the manifesto has charted out various schemes like ‘pension for farmers’, ‘25 lakh crore investments’ etc. to address the agrarian distress. The real picture, however, portrays a contradicting schema. Although the manifesto does not provide any concrete statistics, in the last budget allocation to the ‘Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana’ faced a stupendous cut - ‘from Rs 4,500 cr in the revised estimates to just Rs 3,600 cr’. According to Vijoo Krishnan, an economist and the general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), “It is notable that the outlay for Price Stabilisation Fund which was a much-hyped programme aiming to address problems arising out of volatility in prices has come down from Rs 6,900 crores in 2016-17 to merely Rs 1,500 crores in 2018-19.” (2019, April 10) It is quite surprising that the BJP has kept the much-hyped Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, not on the top of their promise list in the manifesto. This particular scheme was claimed as the solution for many farmers, now put under voluntary choice, after it faced severe criticisms from many pressure groups. A report suggests that, in a reply to an RTI filed by PP Kapoor, more than 84 lakh farmers, about 15 per cent of the total farmers insured in the first year of the scheme in 2016-17, withdrew themselves from the scheme in 2017-18. This scheme was dubbed as ‘milking cow’ and ‘goldmine’ for ten rich corporate houses.
Congress’s u-turn from malefic neo-liberalism?
We have now discussed how the ruling dispensation has gone to the voters with their views on rural development. Let us now see, how Congress, the main opposition party which ruled India for decades, matches or contrasts their manifesto with that of the BJP. For a starter, it must be said that Congress’s manifesto is much more detailed and sophisticated than the BJP’s, although it has several points of loopholes. Professor Yogendra Yadav has termed it as ‘the right document in the wrong time’ - although many economists have suggested a contrary picture.
To begin with, Congress has promised a new NYAY scheme to check income disparity. This scheme promises Rs 72,000 per year to the poorest 20% of India’s households. The ruling BJP and its allies have termed it as absurd. The main point which clouds their accusation is the determinant factor of choosing the beneficiaries and the ‘plausibility’ factor. Economist Pranab Bardhan has suggested that it is not only possible to run the scheme, but is a new economic imperative if we want to bridge the enormous income disparity the country faces. He claims that “[...] by reducing the subsidies to the better-off and increasing the taxes on the rich, nearly 10% of GDP can be potentially mobilised.” (2019, April 4) The supporters and the contenders of the scheme have almost unanimously conveyed the problem with ‘identification’ of beneficiaries – although they see the Socio-Economic Caste Consensus (SECC), 2011 can be used for the purpose. Apart from that, the Antodyay Anna Yojana (AAY), which maintains a record of 2.36 crore families, eligible to receive 35 kg of wheat/rice per month. In my opinion, this is the most inclusive list of beneficiaries as it encompasses the plethora of beneficiaries – ranging from rural landless population to the urban unorganised sector.
But still, the question of ‘mobilising resources’ remain a primary axiom of debate over the scheme. How can the Congress, the champion of corporate-driven development, suddenly turn the table to this extent of becoming a benevolent caretaker of the poor? It is natural that, given the powerful corporate-rich-middle class clout that Indian politics face today, a scheme like the NYAY, although too little to alleviate inequality from our society, will face an immense challenge. As economist S. Subramanian says, “from 2005-06 to 2013-14, the average annual ratio of ‘revenue foregone’ (which is a measure of exemptions and concession attracted by direct and indirect taxes) to GDP was of the order of 6.45%. This is mainly assistance to corporate and business interest. Nary a word of criticism has been levelled against support for the rich, while a prospective programme of vastly more modest support for the poor is met with the charge of violating fiscal discipline.” (2019, April 2) Here, in my opinion, politics come into play and ‘political economy’ takes the primary stage. Here, politics is tightly entangled with the ‘ethical stance’ and a ‘moment of decision’, transcending statistical scales of microeconomics. At the same time, this must also be reiterated that the revenue generation for NYAY cannot be done at the expense of other social benefits – like education and health. From the manifesto, it seems that the Congress has begun to understand the implication of the two-decade-old illusionary ‘trickle down’ approach, which indeed brought some benefits to a minuscule middle class but impoverished the majority of the masses. Anjana Thampi and Ishan Anand rightly point out in their comments on the Congress’s manifesto, that the manual labourers in agriculture “have been most affected when real wage growth took a nosedive after 2014 and hardly recovered since then. Farm output prices have also declined sharply. The growth in the wholesale price index for food articles was negative for six consecutive months from July to December 2018. This was the worst slump in food prices in the last 18 years.” (2019, March 26) So how does the Congress plan to address this issue?
Congress promises to launch MGNREGA 3.0 – ‘in the Water Bodies restoration mission’ and ‘Wasteland Regeneration mission’. Together with NYAY, this seems to be going in the right direction. According to the Central Statistics office, farm income growth in India has dropped to as low as 2.67 per cent, lowest in fourteen years. To address such an aggravated situation, Congress has promised to set up a ‘National Commission on Agricultural Development and Planning’ to gauge and implement a minimum support price (MSP). The peasants’ organisations, which organised massive Kisan long marches in various cities, demanded the MSP to be at least one and a half times of the total cost of inputs. Congress must hear them to chalk out a definitive plan against ambivalent promises. It is quite clear from the manifesto that Congress has taken the issues of rural Indian distress into account when they write, “Congress will encourage farmers to diversify into the production of local varieties of millets and pulses that can be procured for the PDS, Mid-Day Meals Scheme and the ICDS programme”. This is a much more concrete plan than a Pradhanmantri Kisan Samman Yojana, peddled by the BJP. In the recent times, many organisations have demanded a separate parliamentary session to address the agricultural issues, and Congress’s ‘separate kisan budget’ is a positive step towards it, indeed it means very little at this stage. Without more public investment in the agricultural sector, together with the active participation of the state in building roads, electricity – a separate budget will not provide an alternative to the continuing marketised plunder of Indian agriculture.
It is quite surprising that none of the major political parties mentioned anything about land reform. Land issues in India, from the ceiling of landholding in a feudalistic setup in many parts of the country to land grab for real estate business and SEZs, is a major reason behind the distress in India’s rural economy. If land reform is not considered with utmost seriousness, agricultural input of any amount will not reap any major benefit. It is in this sense, I believe, economist Prabhat Patnaik is quite right calling the Congress’s manifesto and various schemes a ‘charity document of the neo-liberalism with a human face’.
Before concluding the article, I would like to bring the reader’s attention to another very important aspect. In their comments, many economists have pointed out that ‘identification of the real beneficiary’ is a major issue. Even in the past, we have been reminded several times that ‘only one paisa from the 100 paise allotted’ for the people reach them. Political scientists often regarded that the bureaucratic apathy cause to this situation. But the major reason behind the so-called ‘implementation problem’ is social structure of India– class, caste and gender. It is in this sense, Samajwadi Party’s manifesto which openly calls for ‘taxing the top 10%’, who uniformly come from the upper caste, is a more positive step towards attaining social justice and poverty alleviation.
For the first time after two decades of India’s liberalisation, political parties are waking up from their slumber and at least publicly ready to relinquish their ‘obsession with growth numbers.’ This is indeed a positive step, as clearly seen in the manifesto of the two major political parties of India. This is result of a consequence India is facing today, especially with acute rural distress. It is not surprising that the recent assembly elections in the three North Indian states, stronghold of BJP, were fought on real issues like jobs and agriculture. It is also clear from Congress’s manifesto that the grand old party is trying to bring the 2019 election to real issues like those. The BJP, on the other hand, has not addressed issues like a job with much seriousness!
In this article, I have tried to analyse the vision of two major political parties of India, in terms of their commitments and promises to the rural population. We have seen while the BJP has chosen to go subtle, with just mentioning their existing schemes, the Congress has walked a long way to chalk out what might actually be a positive step. The BJP’s unwillingness to make grand promises might have derived from their poor performance in many recent elections and with farmers hitting the streets in thousands against their governments – both at the centre and states, where they rule. With this, it can safely be concluded that the narrative was already set months ago and now with the manifestos of the two competing political parties it is evident that agricultural distress and rural economy is going to be a key issue for the next government, whoever manages to win on the 23rd May.
Expert Gyan: What the Congress's Minimum Income Scheme Can and Can't Do for India https://thewire.in/economy/expert-gyan-congress-nyay
Damodaran, H. (2019, March 3). Farm Income Growth Slumps to a 14-year-low in Oct-December 2018. The Indian Express.
Krishnan, V. ( 2019) Agrarian Crisis: Anti-Farmer Policies Pursued Aggressively. Retrieved from All India Kisan Sabha website. http://kisansabha.org/issues-and-policies/agrarian-crisis-anti-farmer-policies-pursued-aggressively/
Outlook (2018, December, 8). Retrieved from the Outlook website Agrarian Crisis Is A Social Crisis Now: P.Sainath
Subramanian, S (2019, April 2). Congress's Proposed NYAY Scheme Is an Ambitious Step in the Right Direction. https://thewire.in/political-economy/congress-nyay-minimum-income-elections-2019
Indian National Congress.(2019). Manifesto Lok Sabha Elections 2019. Retrieved from https://manifesto.inc.in/pdf/english.pdf
Bharatiya Janata Party. (2019). Sankalp Patra Lok Sabha 2019. Retrieved from https://images.indianexpress.com/2019/04/bjp-election-2019-english.pdf
Samajwadi Party (2019). Mahaparivartan Through Social Justice: A New Vision, A new Hope. Retrieved from https://www.samajwadiparty.in/document_of_2019_eng.pdf
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