OPINION | Like Mother, Like Daughter: How Priyanka Took a Leaf Out of Sonia Gandhi's Book to Give Shape to NYAY
Priyanka has demonstrated that she has the right instincts and political understanding of the ground situation, which are often beyond the realm of experts.
Congress General Secretary and Uttar Pradesh - East in-charge Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (PTI)
When Congress president Rahul Gandhi released the party’s election manifesto last week, he spoke at length about its promised minimum income guarantee scheme for the poor and repeatedly declared “Garibi par vaar, 72 hazaar”.
The constant emphasis on “72 hazaar” was to amplify the message that if voted to power, the Congress will guarantee an income of Rs 6,000 per month, amounting to Rs 72,000 annually to 20 per cent of the poorest families in the country. This was meant to send out a clear message that the poor would be assured a fixed income by the Congress.
It now transpires that it was Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who suggested that the party must announce a specific amount that would be given to each family as this would resonate better with the people. It was also her idea that the scheme is christened Nyunatum Aay Yojana or NYAY.
The suggestion was made after the first draft of the income guarantee scheme was discussed at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee in Ahmedabad. Most members felt the proposed scheme was complicated and difficult to understand. Congress leaders — former finance minister P Chidambaram, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda and head of the party’s data analytics department Praveen Chakravarty — who were entrusted with the task of drawing up this scheme then went back to the drawing board to incorporate Priyanka’s suggestion. The initial draft was subsequently fine-tuned and the final scheme now forms the centrepiece of the party’s election manifesto.
Priyanka had argued that since the Modi government has already pledged an annual amount of Rs 6,000 to small and marginal farmers, the Congress manifesto must necessarily do better and spell out the exact sum of money which a poor family would receive. If the Congress failed to do so, the party’s proposed scheme would have compared poorly with the Modi government’s farm income support scheme under which the Centre has already disbursed two installments of Rs 2,000 each to the targeted beneficiaries.
The initial scheme, conceptualised by the Congress party’s in-house experts, had been quite different. Though it was based on the basic premise of providing an assured minimum income to the poor, the first draft did not stipulate the amount which would be given to each family.
According to this formulation, the minimum income which a family requires was fixed at Rs 12,000 per month. This figure was finalised on the basis of available data. The first draft had recommended that those earning less than this amount should be compensated accordingly by the government. This essentially meant that each household would not receive the same amount, which would be calculated individually on the basis of its current income.
This “top-up scheme”, as it was referred to, was based on the formulation that the bottom 10 per cent of the poor population earned an average of Rs 5,000 and would be paid Rs 7,000 per month so that they are guaranteed a monthly income of Rs 12,000. The next slab of 10 per cent population would receive Rs 5,000 as a family’s average monthly income was calculated at Rs 7,000.
This formula predictably ran into rough weather at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee as most members felt it was far too complex and would be difficult to explain to the electorate. For starters, it would be a herculean task to identify the beneficiaries and decide on each family’s income, especially in the unorganised sector where earnings vary according to demand in the market.
Priyanka had then stepped in with the proposal that an unconditional fixed sum is promised instead of giving different amounts which would be difficult to calculate and could actually create heartburn among those who received less money. Consequently, the old formula was rejigged and it was decided to do away with the “top-up scheme” and go in for an unconditional payment of a universal basic income as specified in the party’s election manifesto. In other words, each poor family in the bottom 20 per cent bracket will receive a uniform amount of Rs 72,000 every year.
This entire exercise has essentially shown that though number-crunching and domain expertise is essential in drawing up policies, it cannot and does not compensate for sound political judgment. Here, Priyanka demonstrated that she has the right instincts and political understanding of the ground situation, which are often beyond the realm of experts.
It must be remembered that it was former Congress president Sonia Gandhi who had insisted that the United Progressive Alliance government announce a loan waiver for farmers and implement the minimum rural employment guarantee scheme. Both schemes met with stiff opposition from economists and other experts who believed these were not economically feasible.
Even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, who are known to be opposed to freebies, were apprehensive that the schemes may not be fiscally viable. Sonia Gandhi, however, stood her ground and the two proposals were eventually implemented. As it happened, both turned out to be political winners.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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