‘NYAY’, the naysayers and the politics of poverty

There is much debate on the Indian National Congress campaign promise of NYAY – justice in English but in Hindi an acronym for ‘Nyuntam Aay Yojana’, or the Minimum Guarantee Scheme, under which the poorest 20 per cent households would receive Rs.72,000 per annum if the proposal turns into policy. It is typical of election messaging that headlines are soaked in and there is little time to separate the wheat from the chaff. With the incumbent BJP taking an aggressive stance on national security, the Congress was struggling with a clear direction, other than an anti-Modi plank. This plank was strong, potentially powerful but still took the debate back to Modi and his politics. A positive agenda for the future was missing.

It is irrelevant whether NYAY represents a change of heart or a rethinking of directions or the opportunists in the Congress seeing this as a trick to beat Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at their set of tricks. The point is that the Congress has understood and grabbed this as the only credible way it can stand out and offer a solution to the complex problem of growth that is lop sided, not inclusive and not seen as benefitting the weaker sections.

The Congress needed a clean and clear action-oriented message, which, if repeated over and over again, could yield good dividend as the party identified itself with the issue being hammered. That was the Congress problem all along this season. NYAY changes that and seeks to prepare the Congress, the party of liberalisation, let’s not forget, as a party that promotes an aggressive pro-poor agenda.

The debates that have followed, the divisions that have emerged on what some see as doles and handouts and how this might derail an already weak fisc, have all served to paint and position the Congress as a party that stakes its future on policies to uplift the poor. This is not an argument for the Congress, nor does this suggest that the Congress is a party that has served the weakest – it has done that, half-heartedly, ham handedly, just as it has served (better served, actually) the powerful and the connected. In that, it is irrelevant whether NYAY represents a change of heart or a rethinking of directions or the opportunists in the Congress seeing this as a trick to beat Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at their set of tricks.

The point is that the Congress has understood and grabbed this as the only credible way it can stand out and offer a solution to the complex problem of growth that is lop sided, not inclusive and not seen as benefitting the weaker sections. This is traditionally not the space of the BJP though the BJP has tried to grab it and showcase its policies for the poor. This is the space that the Congress has over the years, slowly but surely, ceded as it took on the mantle of privatisation and liberalisation, leading over the years to the decimation of worker unions, the casualisation of the workforce and the closeness of its political leaders to the world of crony capitalism.

Social misery and inequity

In launching NYAY as its main plank, the Congress also admits that liberalisation as a policy has not worked to the advantage of the poor. It has run into precisely the pitfalls that were seen as Dr. Manmohan Singh launched India on the path to liberalisation and privatisation in 1991.

The 2014 landslide for the BJP was a powerful rejection of the Congress, its policies and its support and even encouragement of monumental corruption in high places and in big deals. Now the dynamic unleashed by right-wing politics maybe pushing back. NYAY therefore is an example of how the system responds – sometimes by force of circumstance, at other times by design and often because a path opens up and looks interesting as it has been untrodden for a while.

In his budget speech of 24 July 1991, Dr. Singh said: “We must restore to the creation of wealth its proper place in the development process. For without it, we cannot remove the stigma of abject   poverty, ignorance and disease. But we cannot accept social misery and inequity as unavoidable in the process of creation of wealth. The basic challenge of our times is to ensure that wealth creation is not only tempered by equity and justice but is harnessed to the goal of removal of poverty and development for all.”

If that was the script, the movie has turned out very different. It was the abject failure of the Congress, and notably the silence of Dr. Manmohan Singh and the policies of its leaders like P Chidambaram, considered among the high performing ones, that was directly responsible for the coming to power of the Modi-Shah combine. The 2014 landslide for the BJP was a powerful rejection of the Congress, its policies and its support and even encouragement of monumental corruption in high places and in big deals.

Now the dynamic unleashed by right-wing politics maybe pushing back. NYAY therefore is an example of how the system responds – sometimes by force of circumstance, at other times by design and often because a path opens up and looks interesting as it has been untrodden for a while. This election season, the considered wisdom of a set of observers heard in urban centres at least, is that the BJP will return, perhaps with a reduced seat count but still safely home as the NDA alliance. It is difficult to say whether NYAY and its presentations as a “surgical strike against poverty” will stand ground against the “surgical strikes” that have been the election talk of the BJP. Only last week (Mar. 29), the Prime Minister pointed out to an audience in Odisha that Pakistan was still counting their dead after the Balakot air strike while the opposition was asking for proof that the strikes did their damage. Yet, the conversation has turned, even if it is a slow turn. The directional change is for real. It will be good for India and for this election if the issues being debated are poverty, the future of reforms, the kind of wealth the nation needs to generate and what kind of a society we seek to build.

Issues under the radar

These are precisely the issues that have gone under the radar as growth numbers got equated in the common urban mind to cheaper loans, faster cars and fancy airports while train stations languish and the condition of the everyday bus deteriorates. Coupled with policies that have created no new jobs for the millions in the job market, growth has meant increased distress for the weak, the less educated and those who cannot bargain for their rights. But is the Congress really geared to address some of these concerns or is NYAY a gimmick for difficult political times.

It will be good for India and for this election if the issues being debated are poverty, the future of reforms, the kind of wealth the nation needs to generate and what kind of a society we seek to build.

To show its commitment, the Grand Old Party will have to do much more than issue a manifesto or run with a slogan. At that game, it is already bested by the BJP. To reclaim the space will require some serous introspection, a careful choice of new leaders for the future and a commitment to the true ideals of growth that Dr. Singh did layout but never achieved: “In highlighting the significance of reform, my purpose is not to give a fillip to mindless and heartless consumerism we have borrowed from the affluent societies of the West...Our approach to development  has to combine efficiency with austerity…austerity  is a way of holding our society together in pursuit of the noble goal of banishing poverty, hunger and disease from this ancient land of ours.” When that commitment is truly in place, money for NYAY can be found, and NPAs will come in check and cronies will know their place and the fisc will be back in order and growth, yes, will be delivered. We are a long, long way from that this election season.

(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)