Prime Minister Narendra Modi has slowly, but with sharp focus and political craftiness, appropriated much of the Congress-led governments’ welfare legacy.
From Aadhaar to the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, and from MGNREGS to rural housing — the Modi government has made several of the Congress’ marquee initiatives its own, helping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) project itself as the great saviour of rural India, as against its predominantly Brahmin-Baniya image earlier.
With Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s latest rural booster shot through an additional Rs 40,000 crore under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) — a rural job programme conceptualised and introduced by the UPA 1 government — Modi’s dispensation has underscored its commitment to the scheme and to use it to the hilt at the time of an unprecedented crisis.
A hold over rural India was the strength of the Congress as a national party, which has gradually eroded with it ceding space to the earlier more urban-centric BJP. But more significant than the electoral and political implications of this is the symbolism of it all — Modi using Congress’ initiatives to lay the ground of his pro-welfare image.
And how has this been possible? Simply because somewhere down the line, the Congress was foolish enough to abandon its own creations, or not market them as a substantive legacy. Modi, on the other hand, has been clever enough to know the importance of slyly using his rival’s initiatives and then, going on to make them seem like his babies.
How Modi has taken all that was Congress’
Since coming to power in 2014, Narendra Modi has, with great precision, adopted several of his predecessors’ innovations, which in turn, have helped his welfare governance model.
Refresh to 2014 when he had just assumed power. Modi dragged Aadhaar out from the dusty storeroom it had been relegated to, held several high-level meetings and made it clear that this unique identification number has to be promoted. It wasn’t the UPA, which had brought in Aadhaar under Nandan Nilekani’s leadership and vision, that gave it the legal backing it needed. It was the Modi government that stood by the scheme, brought in an act to back it and fought the long and polarised legal battle to defend it.
Aadhaar — a UPA child — has for all practical purposes become Modi’s forever now.
The Direct Benefit Transfer or DBT scheme, again launched by the Congress with much pomp and show in 2013 (and which along with Aadhaar strengthens the delivery of government welfare schemes), has also been used extensively by Modi to dole out pro-poor policies, including recently when his government said it would use this cash transfer mechanism to help the poor amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The rural housing scheme — Indira Awaas Yojana — was replete with lacunae in implementation. Modi realised the importance of the scheme, changed its name, made it all about himself in 2015, but also brought in changes that helped make it far more effective and popular. “Modiji ne ghar diya hai (Modi has given us a home),” was a common refrain before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, and went on to help the Prime Minister massively in his re-election bid.
Now, with this whopping allocation to MGNREGS, Modi has made this scheme very much his own, ironically after having called it a “living monument of the UPA’s failures” in Parliament in 2015.
The findings of the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) — started by the UPA in 2011 — finally came out in 2015 and since, has formed the bedrock of this government’s welfare policies in terms of identifying and targeting beneficiaries.
Essentially, Modi realised early on in his tenure that the ‘suit boot ki sarkar‘ image could be his undoing, and soon enough, turned towards ‘jan kalyan’. He didn’t have to do much, the Congress had kept most of the ingredients ready for him. All he did was mix them together as per his own recipe, add the Modi tadka and sell them as his own. Of course, not to take away from the fact that he did realise the significance of these schemes and was willing to invest in them.
Congress — master of abandonment
More than Modi’s shrewdness, it is the lack of vision of the Congress party that is reflected in how its legacy is fast eroding.
The rural housing scheme was named after Indira Gandhi, but the Congress did not bother to invest any more in it than the routine bureaucratic interest.
MGNREGA was widely credited with the UPA’s improved performance at the hustings in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, but eventually, somewhere down the line, the party lost interest in improving or promoting it, despite Sonia Gandhi’s backing of it. Then Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram got into a spat over what the former saw as ‘savage cuts‘ in rural schemes. The result — it seemed the UPA did not care much about welfare and the party was divided on the issue.
DBT was picked by the Congress and forgotten in no time. But most brutal was its treatment of Aadhaar. The unique identification system was brought in with much fanfare, but dropped like a hot potato early on in its journey. Intra-party rivalries, differences within the government and no coherent strategy meant no one was on the same page, and policies, schemes and innovations suffered.
The Congress’ loss has been Modi’s gain, at least in terms of optics. Very little is left of the UPA years that the voter would remember it by. Modi has ensured he has put his stamp on everything that was never his and that his party once vociferously criticised. The Congress, meanwhile, has gifted away to the BJP what it should have proudly owned forever.
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