Before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress party felt India needed a universal basic income of sorts. Its plan was called NYAY, the Nyunatam Aay Yojana. The idea was that no Indian family should live on less than Rs 6,000 a month. If they do, the government must give them the shortfall.
The Congress lost the election badly and forgot all about NYAY. Despite projecting it as a dole of Rs 72,000 a year, NYAY failed to win votes for the Congress because it was launched with a very poor campaign, just a few days before polling began. Ideas take time and effort to spread. Even a banal, hollow slogan like “New India 2022” gained currency because Prime Minister Narendra Modi used it for two years, from 2017 to 2019 (and has now dumped).
India’s slowdown is arguably the biggest economic crisis since 1991. Lakhs of people have lost their jobs, incomes and wages are stagnating, not leaving people with enough money even to buy essentials like underwear and biscuits.
The winter of 2019, even more than the summer of 2019, is ripe for a real NYAY campaign. As PM Narendra Modi claims all is well and India is on its way to becoming a $5-trillion economy, the Congress and the opposition at large could throw him a simple challenge: universal basic income. The challenge could be refined further: give either a job or minimum basic income to every family. ‘Naukri ya NYAY’.
If India is doing as well as Modi claims, no Indian family should be earning less than Rs 6,000 a month. And if one is, then the government should step in with help.
There will be many benefits of a NYAY campaign, if undertaken today.
The upper hand
First, it will help the opposition set the agenda. Mostly it is the Modi government that gets to set the agenda and the opposition only reacts. What the opposition has to say becomes irrelevant, because the entire conversation becomes about what the government is proposing. Can India be a $5-trillion economy by 2024 or not? Should Indians be able to buy land in Kashmir or not? Do we need an all-India National Register of Citizens to identify illegal immigrants or not? Should there be a Ram Mandir at the demolished Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya or not?
The answer to these questions does not matter, because the questions are framed in a way that all answers benefit the ruling establishment. Even if you say India can’t be a $5-trillion economy by 2024, you will end up highlighting that it is what Modi is working towards. What is the opposition working towards? No one knows. The upper hand in politics belongs to the one who sets the agenda.
A NYAY campaign will serve to set the agenda in a way that benefits the opposition. No matter how the Modi government responds, it will help the opposition and hurt the ruling party. If the government accepts it, it will be a victory for the opposition. If the government rejects or ignores it, it will look like it doesn’t care for the suffering of the poor and those losing jobs. If the government says it is a bad idea, impractical idea, that there isn’t enough money to do it and so on, it will make people talk about what the opposition is proposing to improve the lives of Indians.
Second, a NYAY campaign will give the opposition a cause. Rudderless and listless, the opposition desperately needs a reason to justify its existence. If you look at the Congress party’s non-campaign in Maharashtra and Haryana, you’ll see the opposition has given up all hope. The BJP has reached such a dominating peak that the opposition has given up any hope of winning any election any time soon.
By campaigning for NYAY, the opposition would give itself a cause. The leaders and cadres deserting opposition ranks will see that the opposition parties still have the ability to put up a fight. By waging a do-or-die battle to get the people of India universal basic income, the opposition could inject some life in itself and come out of coma.
Trust is everything
The opposition today suffers from a credibility crisis and a trust deficit among the masses, as the Lok Sabha election results showed. Part of the reason for the failure of NYAY in the Lok Sabha elections was the trust deficit between the Congress and a large number of swing voters. There are many reasons for this trust deficit, one of which is that the opposition comes across as being interested in nothing other than winning elections. Modi, on the other hand, believes in permanent campaigning, giving the impression that he thinks about people’s welfare every single day.
The Congress party had announced in mid-September that it would launch an agitation on economic issues in mid-October, but there is no sign of it. How is anyone to take the Congress party seriously? Not that any of the regional opposition parties are doing any better.
A NYAY campaign today, leading up to the next budget session in February, will help restore the opposition’s credibility before the electorate. It will show the opposition cares about people’s suffering due to the economic slowdown and rising unemployment. More importantly, people will see the opposition is not merely criticising the government for rising unemployment but offering a solution to alleviate people’s distress. There’s no campaign like a positive campaign.
Third, a NYAY campaign could cause a counter-polarisation against Hindutva. With Kashmir, NRC, Ram Mandir and so on, 2019 is the bumper crop year of Hindutva. Parliament’s winter session from 18 November to 13 December (to be extended last minute to clearly bring in some new law without giving prior notice) will see the Modi government focus on Hindutva and identity politics in order to shift public attention away from the economic slowdown.
At such a time, a NYAY campaign will help the opposition counter the politics of religious polarisation. The opposition could shift the debate from ‘Do you support Ram Mandir?’ to ‘Do you support NYAY?’ The opposition might then walk out not against Ram mandir, but against the government’s refusal to bring in universal basic income.
The BJP and others might well say that Indian voters have already rejected NYAY. How is it that farmers voted for Modi for Rs 6,000 a year, but people even poorer than these marginal farmers don’t want Rs 6,000 a month? The failure was of the campaign, not of the idea.
A smarter NYAY campaign this time should be about going door to door, asking the poor the sign on a NYAY petition, building public momentum from the grassroots even if the media ignores the opposition’s campaign. Such mass movements also make passionate young people join political parties.
The fourth benefit of a NYAY campaign, therefore, will be to strengthen the opposition’s rank and file.
Views are personal.