India's opposition Congress promises dole for poorest families ahead of election

Published March 26, 2019
“We’ve done all the calculations, we’ve asked the best economists,” says Gandhi. — AFP/File
“We’ve done all the calculations, we’ve asked the best economists,” says Gandhi. — AFP/File

The main opposition Congress party will give 72,000 rupees ($1,045) to each of India’s poorest families every year if voted back to power, its chief said on Monday, launching what he called a “final assault on poverty”.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi, facing a tough opponent in Prime Minister Narendra Modi in general elections set for April and May, told reporters the program would benefit 250 million of a population of 1.3 billion.

“We’ve done all the calculations, we’ve asked the best economists,” Gandhi said, emphasising that the scheme would be fiscally prudent. “They all backed us on this idea. We are going to implement it.”

Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismissed Gandhi’s announcement as a poll gimmick lacking details.

“What will happen to subsidies? What will happen to other expenditure? Nothing is out there,” said BJP spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal. “Without homework, it’s just a political statement.”

Any family earning less than 12,000 rupees a month would receive 6,000 rupees every month in its bank account, said Praveen Chakravarty, the head of Congress’s data analytics department.

The party would look to roll out the program nationwide within two years, and target paying the amount into the account of the family’s senior woman member, he added.

Chakravarty declined to say if the scheme would fold in existing subsidies, but said state and federal government have sufficient resources to fund it without widening the fiscal deficit.

The Congress announcement may have come too late, some analysts said.

“Voters are now well aware that in the run-up to elections, there would be lot of things and schemes announced,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at think-tank Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “I don’t think this will do anything for the Congress.”

Instead, Verma said the Modi government’s recently announced direct cash support of 6,000 rupees a year for 120 million poor farmers, which has already got off the ground, could help woo voters.

“When you see something tangible in your hand or in your account, that’s a different ball game all together.”

The number of Indians below the poverty line had fallen to about 65 million, or 5 percent of the population, from 22 percent in 2011, the BJP said on social network Twitter after Gandhi’s news conference.

In recent weeks, Congress has pivoted its election campaign back to economic issues as polls showed the BJP had gained an early advantage after hostilities last month that brought nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan to the brink of another war.

Of 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, Modi’s alliance could win 241, versus 141 to the Congress-led opposition alliance, a survey released this month by the CVoter polling agency showed.

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