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'Rs 16 Lakh Crore': Why Rahul Gandhi Is Stuck on Modi Govt's Loan-Waiver Record

By contrasting this number – which benefited the rich – with the BJP government's refusal to waive farm loans, the Congress has kept income inequality at the centre of its election discourse.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Photo: X/@RahulGandhi

New Delhi: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi appears to have consciously framed the 2024 electoral battle in terms of a ‘rich versus poor’ contest, significantly enhancing the opposition’s catchment area beyond the barriers of caste and religion.

This, in a way, helped him grab the majoritarian plank – economic, not religious – complementing his ‘Nyay’ agenda, as he has been saying that a large section of Indians faced injustice under the Narendra Modi regime. Tackling the question of social justice head on, Rahul has been saying that almost 93% of the population (i.e. 50% OBC + 15% Dalits + 8% tribals + 15 minorities + 5% poor upper castes) have faced deprivation and injustice, and the situation has been fiercely aggravated because of Modi’s ‘pro-rich’ policies. He has repeatedly insisted that Modi works for a few corporate houses, giving voice to what Thomas Piketty often says – that general interests versus private interests triggers an inegalitarian spiral.

Rahul publicly concedes that he is stuck on this number – Rs 16 lakh crore, an amount that was written off to help top billionaires, while the government has persistently refused to waive off farmers’ loans.

Responding to a query about ‘freebies’, as the Congress has promised one lakh rupees to every graduate and diploma holder for one year, Rahul said on Thursday, “We are not giving money for free. We are making a law giving legal guarantee for apprenticeship, which will create opportunity for training for every youth. Not free, he will work, undergo training and get one lakh [rupees] in a year. This is for skill-building and in-house training. They all work during this period, not get anything for free. Don’t get rattled, there is no freebie. When loans of the biggest billionaires are written off, nobody says it’s a freebie. They describe it as support for economic growth. The same logic should be applied to farmers when their loans are waived off. Use one logic. Not two logics – one for farmers and the other for billionaires. Judge both on the same yardstick.”

Also read: India’s Political Landscape Shows BJP’s Counter-Revolution Game Is Afoot

At a time when workers’ wage and middle class earnings have stagnated for a long period and Gautam Adani – an industrialist friendly with the prime minister, earned Rs 1,600 crore a day – Gandhi is counting on many in the electorate seeing this as a compelling argument. Though Modi too talks about the poor and deploys populist policies to win elections, he has demonstrated an absence of consistency and vision. He attacked what he disparagingly described  as “revdi culture” – referring to the welfare agenda of the Congress in Karnataka – by saying it would have disastrous consequences for the economy. Soon after, the entire Sangh parivar ecosystem and friendly media began sloganeering against “revdi culture”; even the Election Commission of India took the unusual step of seeking the views of the political parties on promises that were economically unviable.

But Modi soon did a stunning somersault, showering freebies during the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh elections to counter the Congress’s welfare agenda. While the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government launched the ‘Ladli Behna Yojana’ in which Rs 1,000 cash assistance was given to every woman every month, with a promise of increasing the amount to Rs 3,000, Modi himself announced a gas cylinder would cost only Rs 450 if the BJP were voted to power. This was absurd and grossly unjust because the prime minister, who sold the gas cylinder for Rs 1,100 across the country, was promising alluring discounts in just three states.

Modi ended up sending out confusing signals amidst chants of “Amrit Kaal” and India becoming a “Vishwaguru”, as he himself hyped up the decision to distribute free foodgrain to 80 crore people in the country. On the one hand, Modi boasted of dramatic developments post 2014 and India becoming the third largest economy; on the other, he presented evidence of wretched poverty where people required free ration for survival. Addressing a public rally in Madhya Pradesh during the assembly election, Modi said, “We gave free ration to 80 crore people under the Gareeb Kalyan Ann Yojna… Unka chulha kabhi bujha nahin. Maa ko kabhi rote-bilakhte bacche dekhne nahin pade [Their stove never went off. No mother had to see her children crying from hunger].” The imagery used by the prime minister – of “unlit stoves” and “children crying of hunger” is obviously not in sync with his exalted claims of India as a “Vishwaguru” his period in power as “Amrit Kaal”.

The Congress was quick to describe the announcement of 80 crore people getting free ration as proof of deepening economic distress and rising disparities. Congress communications chief Jairam Ramesh rubbed the message in, saying, “Modi as chief minister of Gujarat opposed the Food Security Act passed by the Manmohan Singh government. Now the same scheme has been rebranded to help the people who suffered income losses during the Covid lockdown. Economic distress started with note-bandi. Modi, who is on a Desh Becho Abhiyan to one friend, had also made fun of MGNREGA which came to people’s rescue in the time of acute distress.”

The Congress kept its focus on “berozgari and mahngai”, and the latest CSDS survey vindicated this position; it showed people believe unemployment and prices are the biggest issues in the election. While the price of milk, pulses, edible oil, wheat flour and spices has almost doubled, the rise in petrol-diesel rates has made a mockery of Modi’s 2014 slogan – Bahut hui mahngai ki maar/abki baar Modi sarkar.

Also read: Jobs in the Congress Manifesto: A Promise and a Hope

As election season approached, Rahul remained focused on his agenda, discovering during his Bharat Jodo Yatra and Nyay Yatra that economic distress and unemployment were issues for the people. He realised the struggle for survival unified people cutting across castes and religions. Unlike in 2019, when he attacked crony capitalism without offering any concrete alternative – his promise of a minimum income guarantee came very late and remained unpublicised – this time the party’s 25-point programme outlines a clear roadmap for empowerment of farmers, workers, women and youth. His promise of a surgical intervention to try and cure enduring caste discrimination is, to many voters, an added attraction.

Not leaving it to reluctant spokespersons to push his agenda, Rahul has himself unwaveringly sustained this discourse for the past two years. He tweeted weeks ago: “Were the loans taken by Modi’s friends waived off? Yes. Was the corporate tax lowered to help Modi’s friends? Yes. Did Modi’s friends get cheap land? Yes. Did farmers’ income double? No. Did farmers get loan-waiver? No. Modi has betrayed India by framing a crony policy that enabled 1% elite people to capture India’s resources. The Congress is committed to make fair policies for farmers, workers, and the poor standing at the end of the queue.” He has persistently asked, “If a few richest capitalists can be helped by the government, why not the poorest?”

Gandhi’s hope – and the thrust of the Congress’s campaign – rests on the belief that the answer to this question puts Modi in the dock.


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