Congress' NYAY: Unanswered questions

The Congress party’s minimum income guarantee scheme, announced by Rahul Gandhi last Monday, is, as he said, intended as a dhamaka and “a game-changer”. Although he didn’t go so far, it’s clear Congress is hoping this could swing the election. In which case isn’t it surprising that at his press conference Rahul Gandhi should have expressed himself in such a way that he left behind considerable misunderstanding if not confusion about the scheme? When exemplary clarity and focus were required we seem to have been given a garbled presentation.

There are two areas where the impression Rahul Gandhi created turns out to be completely wrong. First, he left many believing that the aim of the scheme was to ensure that every family should earn at least 12,000 per month. Therefore, this was a top up scheme that would lift families earning under 12,000 to the 12,000 level. In fact, two well-known economists, Arvind Panagariya and Surjit Bhalla, have written lengthy articles sharply criticising the scheme on this basis. But this impression turns out to be entirely wrong.

The scheme gives a flat Rs 6,000 a month to all its beneficiaries. Each of them gets the same amount. It’s on this basis that every beneficiary will receive Rs 72,000 a year. Although Rahul Gandhi made this latter point, everything else he said on Monday still left the wrong impression that he was proposing a top-up scheme. 

The second wrong impression conveyed by Rahul Gandhi is linked to the first but arguably worse. In conveying the impression that the scheme covers every family earning under Rs 12,000 a month, he also led people to believe that 20 per cent of India’s population falls into this category. This led to immediate questions on television — and next morning in the newspapers — that in all likelihood the number of people earning less than Rs 12,000 was probably sizeably more than just 20 per cent of the population. And, therefore, many asked has Rahul Gandhi got it wrong.
This faulty understanding continued when former finance minister P Chidambaram held a press conference two days later. It’s only in a Tiranga TV interview with Praveen Chakravarty, Congress’s data analytical head, that the truth emerged. The scheme does not cover every family under Rs 12,000. Instead it’s targeting the poorest 20 per cent of the population. The two are not the same. There will be some or many who fall between the poorest 20 per cent and the Rs 12,000 income cut-off. 
The truth is that the Rs 12,000 a month figure is simply what the Congress party believes is a decent liveable wage which everyone should have. That’s all. 

Congress has also made one more assumption. The poorest 20 per cent earn on an average Rs 6,000 a month. Therefore by giving them Rs 6,000 more their income will go up to Rs 12,000. But this does not mean the scheme covers every family earning under Rs 12,000. There will be several who earn under Rs 12,000 a month but are not part of the 20 per cent poor and, therefore, will not be covered. 

Now, if the communication of this critical scheme by the Congress president was so faulty and riddled with misleading impressions, can Congress effectively communicate to the country its principal details in the 10 days left before voting? And can it do so in a way that makes the scheme not just appealing but something that will determine how Indians vote? That, of course, is the key challenge. If the Congress can pull this off, the scheme could prove to be a game-changer that wins the election for Congress or, at least, the wider Opposition. But if it cannot then a potentially great idea will not only have been poorly communicated but its electoral benefits will also not have been reaped. 

As of now you have to turn to the interviews Praveen Chakravarty has given — both to Business Standard and Tiranga TV — to understand the scheme. Yet the people the scheme is intended for don’t follow interviews. Indeed, I very much doubt if they read business newspapers or watch English news channels. 

Which brings me to a depressing conclusion. The Congress Party has not learnt the art of communication. Its President is poor at it. Yet communication is often what politics is all about. This election could turn on it.

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