(Bloomberg) -- India’s main opposition Congress party will pledge a one-time farm loan write off and focus on “have nots” in a bid to woo voters from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling group in elections due by May.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi has already promised a minimum income guarantee to the poor. His party is also considering a plan to provide income for landless farmers and agricultural workers, said M.V. Rajeev Gowda, a Wharton School doctorate in public policy who’s convener of the panel drafting the Congress’s manifesto. Congress will get more people to pay taxes and better target subsidies to help fund these payouts, he said.
The Congress, which won just 44 seats in 2014’s national vote versus Modi’s 282 sweep, is looking to leverage recent provincial election victories that came on the back of widening disenchantment over Modi’s policies on jobs and agriculture. The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party isn’t far behind with the largesse: it used the interim budget this month to offer 750 billion rupees ($10.5 billion) as cash handouts to farmers.
“The election will be on BJP’s performances versus Congress’s promises,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Ashoka University. “Hence, what Congress promises will be very crucial. They hope to promise something which sets them apart from the BJP in this era of economic reform.”
Modi dealt Gandhi’s Congress its worst ever defeat in 2014 after India’s rural wages collapsed amid a slowdown in the broader economy. However, incomes took another beating after Modi’s shock decision in 2016 to invalidate currency notes. More than 60 percent of Indians depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood, while farm output contributes 16 percent to gross domestic product.
In a bid to soothe protesting farmers, Modi has increased India’s budget allocation for agriculture, started programs such as a health card to test soil quality, revamped crop-insurance with a low-cost premium and created a digital platform to connect farmers directly to customers. His government has also announced plans to ensure a 50 percent profit over the cost of production of crops and an annual income support plan for farmers.
Farmers say the crop-support prices are miscalculated because they don’t include rent of the land and other costs, and protests continue for better prices and relief from debt, underscoring the challenges Modi faces before elections.
The plan to write off farm loans is a “one time measure to alleviate the distress caused by five years of neglect by the Modi government,” Gowda, 55, said in an interview in New Delhi. The party may also plan “structural changes” to help farmers boost their incomes by expanding agricultural infrastructure and value chains, he said.
A nationwide farm loan waiver by the Congress would be very significant, said Ashoka University’s Rangarajan. “Still, at this stage it is difficult to say whether it will work.”
The Congress party is targeting landless farmers and agricultural laborers, who are left out in Modi’s income support program. Congress ousted Modi’s party from three states in December by promising farm-loan waivers.
The party is trying to finish the draft of the manifesto by the end of February. It will also announce measures to spur startup companies, especially in newer and non-technology domains, said Gowda who, apart from a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, also taught at one of India’s top business schools.
Congress has set up a 22-member panel to draft its manifesto and has held as many as 120 public meetings across the country to get inputs. It also received suggestions through email, WhatsApp and postings on its website, Gowda said.
The BJP has formed about a dozen panels to reach out to different groups of voters such as farmers, youth, women and minorities, said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a federal minister and a member of the Hindu-nationalist party’s manifesto committee. More than 700 vehicles, decorated as chariots, have fanned out across the country to seek suggestions and ideas to include in the manifesto, he said.
Congress is also planning to give incentives and better credit facilities to small and medium businesses, said Gowda.
“Our overall thrust is constructive, compassionate and competitive,” he said. “We will look at expanding the tax net and rationalizing some subsidies to meet the additional expenditures for these promises.”
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