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Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s announcement Monday that his party, if it comes to power at the Centre, will ensure a minimum basic income for the country’s poor was described by Congress leaders as a “masterstroke” ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Rahul’s promise, made at a rally in Chhattisgarh, where the Congress recently won an impressive victory in the Assembly elections, is an interesting idea, but it is not entirely new.

Variations of this concept have been implemented in Telangana (Rythu Bandhu scheme), and Odisha (Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation, or KALIA, scheme) and the government of Jharkhand has announced a Mukhya Mantri Krishi Yojana — all these schemes, however, are limited to farmers.

Recently, Sikkim’s ruling party, the Sikkim Democratic Fund (SDF), announced that it would implement a Universal Basic Income (UBI), or unconditional direct cash transfer scheme, by 2022, if it is voted back to power in Assembly elections scheduled to be held along with the Lok Sabha elections.

Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling of the SDF has been in power in Sikkim since 1994.
However, this is the first time that such an announcement has been made at the national level — and it has come at a time when the corridors of power in New Delhi are abuzz with speculation that the Narendra Modi government is about to announce some major sops for voters this week. Many, therefore, see Rahul’s promise as a “preemptive strike” ahead of the government’s move.

Rahul reiterated his promise in a tweet. “We cannot build a new India while millions of our brothers & sisters suffer the scourge of poverty. If voted to power in 2019, the Congress is committed to a Minimum Income Guarantee for every poor person, to help eradicate poverty & hunger. This is our vision & our promise,” he said.

Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram posted on Twitter: “Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s announcement at the farmers’ rally in Chhattisgarh is historic and will mark a turning point in the lives of the poor. The principle of Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been discussed extensively in the last two years. The time has come to adapt the principle to our situation and our needs and implement the same for the poor. We will explain our plan in the Congress Manifesto… The poor of India have the first charge on the resources of the country. Congress will find the resources to implement the promise of Rahul Gandhi.”

The 2017 Economic Survey had flagged Universal Basic Income (UBI) as “a conceptually appealing idea” and a possible alternative to social welfare programmes targeted at reducing poverty.

Politically, Rahul’s assurance could pay dividends to the Congress — the party’s promise of a loan waiver and programmed for the farming community are thought to have contributed to its victories in the Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

With the BJP’s top leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and party chief Amit Shah having already ruled out loan waivers for farmers, the BJP cadre has been expecting some populist measures for rural voters. The chief of the party’s Kisan Morcha has addressed a press conference to say that the government would make some major announcements.

[Indian Express]