Universal basic income: Idea whose time has come

The lack of quality jobs usually creates social unrest rapidly but it isn’t happening now, despite a lengthy unemployment crisis, especially among well-educated and skilled workers.
Universal basic income: Idea whose time has come
(Photo| ENS)

One of the few happy takeaways of Partition was murgh takatak, a South Asian cousin of pulled pork made from chicken. The onomatopoeia echoed the sound of metal on metal as tikkas cooking in a pan were shredded with spatulas. Street chefs, mostly Punjabi refugees, innovated a dish with audio effects announcing their wares, and the sound still lives on in the name of a packaged snack.

In the audio track of the 2024 election, Rahul Gandhi’s ‘khatakhat’ has ensured the idea of a universal basic income will not go away, no matter who forms the next government. The Mahalakshmi scheme in the Congress manifesto is universal basic income for families, vested in a woman member who is expected to grow into the head of the family. Empowerment may or may not follow. Women are often proxies for men in panchayat elections, defeating the purpose of quotas. At the same time, in aggressively conservative Haryana, women whose men were killed in the Kargil conflict headed households, with social sanction.

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What income guarantees may do for politics is more certain. Economic agency is the most visible marker of identity, which sadly means that the unemployed are invisible. The lack of quality jobs usually creates social unrest rapidly but it isn’t happening now, despite a lengthy unemployment crisis, especially among well-educated and skilled workers. Perhaps the lack of an economic identity has been offset by religious affiliation, which the BJP’s identity politics has foregrounded.

But income guarantees like Mahalakshmi can devalue religious identity, which is why the PM reacted viscerally to Rahul Gandhi’s ‘khatakhat’, which expresses the speed and regularity with which the Congress promises to deliver guaranteed incomes. It was a juvenile jibe, unfit for a PM to utter, and it exposes his frustration. Having failed for years to create jobs, which was an election promise—the deficit is increasing by about 5 million every year, former Reserve Bank governor D Subbarao has estimated—the BJP is frustrated. It has no excuse to oppose income guarantees.

Towards the end of the campaign, the BJP leadership fell back on its DNA: Muslim-bashing and fear-mongering about asset redistribution. That’s a U-turn from what the PM usually asks to be judged—vikas and vishwaguru weightiness.

It took the Election Commission a month to tell Modi that the vilification of Muslims wasn’t OK, after the PM went on a long campaign, describing them as prolifically fertile “infiltrators”.  After years of vituperation, such terms and the values they express have become normalised.

This is what makes the 2024 election deathly boring—no matter who wins, the air quality may not change for a long time. If people remain divided and the discourse is coarse, and if institutions fail to protect their independence, the outcome would be a mere statistic. GDP growth would remain another statistic reflecting the monopolistic rise of a tiny minority, while fortunes of the overwhelming majority slide.

The PM’s accusation that the Congress has sought to divert the benefits of reservation from scheduled castes and tribes to Muslims is inventive. It channels old anxieties about redistribution of assets and opportunities and gives it a communal, horizontal spin. Recall the resistance V P Singh faced during the Mandal agitation. Consider the communist Tebhaga movement in West Bengal, an intervention favouring sharecroppers that both raised hackles and generated propaganda. In retrospect, its impact on ground seems to have been less impressive than the debate it generated. In recent years, MGNREGA, a work guarantee scheme functionally like an income guarantee, faced unrelenting criticism because it altered the balance of power between rural labour and capital. Power shifts and redistributions create unease.

Progressive measures always earned the resistance of the status quo. In pre-modern India, it was seen in the vilification of social reformers like Ram Mohan Roy. In contemporary politics, it is reflected in support for the BJP from historically advantaged groups, which are actually not choosing the party but rejecting progressive opponents that have redistributed assets to even out differences in an unequal nation.

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When Modi says the Congress will redistribute the benefits of reservation, he is re-awakening old anxieties in new constituencies, in a post-Mandal era. The Congress will find it difficult to allay these fears as reservation is perceived to be a zero-sum game, due to a cap on the volume of positions sequestered. If one community gains, another must lose. The manifesto promises to raise the cap, which is equally hard to defend to voters with common sense. In the V P Singh era, reservation was to be a temporary intervention to level the job market playing field, not an open-ended process of largesse running ‘khatakhat’ across sectors, financed by the public exchequer.

The idea of universal basic income solves the perception problem. It is framed purely in terms of rights, while employment guarantee schemes, whether through MGNREGA or reservations, are transactional and have duties implied: the beneficiary must get the job done. The value of the job done is often a matter of perception. But about a basic income whose custodians are women, there can be no debate. It’s totally takatak, a product which just sounds right, and will not have to justify itself.

(Views are personal)

(On X @pratik_k)

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