Magic Mantra To grab power as UPA III
Aap ka paisa, aap ke haath. This is the new slogan with which the Congress party hopes to woo back the aam admi, the poor, the marginalised and the weaker sections as the government has launched an ambitious direct cash transfer scheme with P Chidambaram calling it a “game changer”. A political game changer hopes the Congress party as it works on once again finding the magic formula which will return them to power as UPA III.
With party insiders saying the Congress is looking at an early elections, after possibly a populist budget, the key components of a revivalist package for the party and the government consist of passing the Lokpal Bill (and thus silencing critics who say Congress does not want to act against corruption), bringing the Food Security Bill, passing the Land Acquisition Bill which will cater to the farmers, projecting Rahul Gandhi as a young leader and the direct cash transfer scheme which may be a winner since people will directly get money into their accounts.
Adressing a press conference at the AICC Headqurters at 24 Akbar Road to press home the point that it is the Congress which spearheaded the scheme, Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram said that the party congratulated the government for the cash transfer scheme which would kick off in 51 districts on January 1, 2013, and by December 2013, the government hoped to cover the rest of the country.
Calling it a political revolutionary move, a historic step and a legal entitlement by which the people will get what is their due, P Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh set out the contours of the scheme which is being hugely hyped but which at the moment is nothing more than recycling old wine in new bottle. In the first phase, the government will transfer direct funds through banks to those who are getting scholarships from the Social Welfare Ministry as well as old age pensioners.
The money was already being given to these sections but there were delays and now it will be given through the bank and will be electronically transferred so that they can access it themselves or through banking correspondents who are being set up in all the areas.
Interestingly a national convention of DCC presidents is being called which will be adressed by Rahul Gandhi as well as P Chidambaram and sources say this is the clearest indication that the party is looking to rev up its electoral machinery in the districts and the instrument is the district presidents who are going to be asked to become active and ensure that the benefits reach the common man.
P Chidambaram said that the scheme to be launched in 51 districts in its first leg, would include the present operational 42 schemes of the government, including those from the Health Ministry. Referring to the modus operandi of the scheme, Chidambaram said that subsidies would directly be credited to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries. He further pointed out that the move by the government would eliminate falsification and duplication with regard to subsidies.
The Union Finance Minister also took the opportunity to hit out at the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had accused the government of trying to bribe the voters ahead of the 2014 general elections with the direct cash transfer scheme. When asked about the allegations of the BJP, Chidambaram reacted angrily saying, “It is an absurd argument of the BJP to say we are bribing people…I do not get a stronger word than absurd. People should choose their words carefully.”
Talking about the scheme, the Finance Minister said that the first phase of launch would involve 16 states. And he expected Aadhaar Penetration to be above 80 per cent in the 51 districts by December 2013.
Pointing out that the beneficiaries would not have to pay any money to get the benefits, Chidambaram said that banks would be the distribution point for cash subsidy initially. He added that the district collectors would be sensitised about the programme. The almost Rs 3,20,000-crore cash transfer scheme will be launched in stages and cover the entire country by the end of 2013, said Chidambaram.
Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh, who also addressed the press conference, said that the direct cash transfer scheme was a part of the Congress manifesto in 2009. He said, “We are fulfilling a promise we made in 2009.”
He further said that the move was nothing less than a political revolution, adding that a meeting of several state-level officers would soon be called over the issue. He further said that Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi would address the meeting of the DCCs and Chidambaram would also furnish the details of the scheme during the meeting.
For the moment, however, the government has not included passing off the subsidies directly to the people since the amounts have not been calculated. With regard to a direct question P Chidambaram said that there was no move at the moment to remove subsidies from food, fertilizer and fuel and said that it was a complicated issue on which the government had not applied its mind. He said that as far as the LPG subsidy was concerned, it could be easily calculated but for the moment the government had made no mention of passing off this subsidy to the people in the form of cash.
Families with Aadhar card, entitled to subsidies, pension, scholarships etc, will get money directly in their bank accounts. For this, they need to give their Aadhar card number to service provider, say, gas agency and bank. Option will exist to claim the cash subsidy at designated bank branch, by using a cash card.
There’s a pilot project for kerosene in Alwar district while a test is being run for cooking gas in Mysore. By January 1, 2013, 51 districts with high Aadhar penetration will be covered. By December 2013, the whole country will be covered. It is being done to check leakages from the system and give power of choice to beneficiaries, especially BPL families. Ahead of the 2014 elections, it is seen as big political thrust.
While the government is talking about covering the entire country, the biggest drawback is that at the moment, only 21 crore of 120 crore people have Aadhar cards. Most BPL families don’t have bank accounts and several villages don’t even have bank branches. The government is basing the entire exercise on banks and using technology transfer to directly benefit the people.
Insiders say that the same people (read babus) who are running the system now will continue to handle the direct cash transfer scheme and the available data with the government on those who are beneficiaries will have to continue to suffice. So if the data is erroneous and if it has major shortcomings, they will remain since the Finance Minister is talking of using the same data but in a more efficient way so as to ensure that the beneficiaries get their money regularly and on time.
Sources say that it may take a long time to stabilise since it is a complicated and ambitious project, but for the party and the government, it is an issue with which to go to the people in terms of directly giving them cash in their very own accounts and may yet turn out to be a political game changer as MGNREGA and waiving off farmers’ loans were.
An insider says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and if the government can successfully market the scheme as being new and innovative and in terms of providing real-time benefits, there may be a political spin-off in terms of wooing back the aam aadmi. The aam aadmi is fed up of the huge increase in the cost of essential commodities and the cost of living as well as the issues of corruption which have dominated the political discourse. And when people connect the two and feel that increase in prices is because of the prevalent corruption, it can spell trouble for the government of the day.
It then becomes crucial, says a senior Congress leader, to distract the mind and the people’s attention to more attractive options and tangible benefits, though the government at the moment has nothing new to offer. That will happen once they begin to transfer cash for the amount they have taken back in subsidies of crucial items like fuel, food and fertilizer. But for the moment that does not figure in the government’s calculations.
By Renu Mittal