Inspired by the success of his party’s election victories in the just-concluded Assembly elections, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has made the call that all farmer loans should be written off. It is clear that Gandhi is proposing to make it central to his party’s electoral agenda ahead of the 2019 general election. In short, Gandhi has given short shrift to economic logic and embraced populism as his primary weapon to prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from claiming a second term. The bigger risk is that this desperate gamble may set in motion an aggressive round of competitive populism.
The timing of the remarks too are suspect, given that it comes with the Congress very clearly on the back foot and could well be designed as a distraction from its present troubles. First, the Supreme Court verdict on Friday dismissed the writ charging the
government with mala fide in the deal for
buying Rafale aircraft. Effectively, it blew a hole in Gandhi’s claims, made rather shrilly during the just-concluded electioneering,
that the Modi regime was embroiled in
corruption. Second, and probably more damaging for the party, a high court verdict indicted a senior Congress leader, Sajjan Kumar, and awarded him a life sentence for his role in the pogrom that led to the murder of 3,000 Sikhs in 1984. The party will find it
difficult to shake off this taint, especially since the high court scrutiny of the riots is yet to conclude and the fear is that more skeletons will tumble out of the Congress cupboard. Even if this were not the case, the call for a nation wide loan waiver is fiscally preposterous. The Union government, which is already under pressure to meet its fiscal targets for the year, is in no position to bear this load. State governments are in an even worse place; in fact, states such as Karnataka and Punjab—both ruled by the Congress—are struggling to fund the electoral promise. Worse there is no evidence that such write-offs contribute in improving the lot of farmers; at best they provide stop-gap help and that too only to a section of the farmers.
Politically too, there is no clear evidence that populism carves out an electoral advantage. Even in the just-concluded election to Madhya Pradesh, the Congress, despite its promise of a farm loan waiver, fell just short of a majority—the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had not promised such a palliative, ended up a close second. However, there is every chance that the opposition parties, unbridled by the burden of office, will up the ante on populist promises in the run-up to the electoral showdown next year. Modi, for most of his tenure, has backed a strategy that coupled social empowerment through strategies like electricity for all, along with entitlement—having retained the rural employment guarantee scheme that his regime had inherited and had initially denigrated. The big question is whether he can hold his nerve and stay the course of prudence.