Can Congress fulfil its '5G' promise in Karnataka?

Implementation of the five guarantee schemes will be crucial for 2024 LS polls

40-Priyanka-Gandhi-with-Siddaramaiah-Shivakumar For her: Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi with Siddaramaiah (right) and D.K. Shivakumar during the release of the financial assistance scheme for women.

The Congress government has hit the ground running, thanks to its ‘5G’ card that propelled it to power in Karnataka. While factors like anti-incumbency, shift in Vokkaliga and Lingayat votes, and consolidation of OBC, dalit and Muslim votes worked in its favour, it was the promise of five guarantee (freebies) schemes that helped the Congress sweep the polls.

Siddaramaiah is racing against time to flesh out the finer details of the schemes—the actual number of beneficiaries, cost implications, availability of funds and the modalities of execution.

The five guarantees are: 200 units of free power to every household every month under Gruha Jyothi Yojana; 10 kilos of free rice to every member of every family below poverty line under Anna Bhagya Yojana; free bus travel for women under Shakti Yojana; financial assistance of Rs2,000 per month to housewives under Gruha Laxmi Yojana; and Rs3,000 to graduates and Rs1,500 to diploma holders as monthly unemployment benefit under Yuva Nidhi Yojana.

The freebies were announced with much fanfare during the election campaign. And, Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar had handed out signed copies of the guarantee card to every household, saying the schemes would be implemented soon after the first cabinet meeting. But the entire exercise is proving to be a daunting task. Two cabinet meetings down, the government is struggling to identify genuine beneficiaries. Moreover, the schemes would cost the state exchequer about Rs56,000 crore every year.

During the polls, the door-to-door distribution of ‘5G’ cards had unnerved the BJP, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say that the promise of freebies would drown the state in debt. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah declared that the first cabinet meeting had given “in-principle approval” to the five guarantee schemes. In response to Modi’s jibe, he said that the country’s debt burden had increased by Rs103 lakh crore under the Modi government.

In Karnataka, he said that the debt trap had doubled from Rs2.42 lakh crore under the previous Congress regime in 2018 to Rs5.64 lakh crore under the BJP government. “We are paying Rs56,000 crore as interest on debt for 2023-24,” he said. “Now can we not allocate Rs50,000 crore per annum for the benefit of the poor?” He added that his government would avoid wasteful expenditure, reduce borrowings and enhance tax collection through stringent measures to provide for the freebie schemes.

But it is easier said than done. Siddaramaiah, who holds the finance portfolio and who has tabled 13 state budgets, is racing against time to flesh out the finer details of the schemes—the actual number of beneficiaries, the cost implications, the availability of funds and the modalities of execution. There have been marathon meetings between officials from the departments of finance, food and civil supplies, transport, energy, women and child welfare and youth affairs to prepare preliminary reports. A high-powered committee will be formed to implement the guarantee schemes.

But there is a need for clarity. Take, for instance, the Gruha Laxmi scheme, which will be implemented by the department of women and child welfare development. There is no clarity on who will be identified as the woman head in a joint family. Also, the beneficiaries need to have their own bank accounts for direct benefit transfer. The department has no means of revenue generation and is dependent on government funds to run its programmes.

Likewise, the food and civil supplies department, too, will need funds to enhance the free rice quota under the Anna Bhagya scheme. The government has directed officials to weed out fake beneficiaries and duplication. “We will need 2.18 lakh tonnes of rice every month to implement the scheme,” said Food and Civil Supplies Minister K.H. Muniyappa.

In the energy department, there are at least 1.2 crore connections for BPL families. The BJP government was providing 75 units of free power to scheduled caste and scheduled tribe families. But the Congress government has assured free power to every household. Moreover, it is not how much the consumers will have to pay if they exceed the 200 units limit.

The unemployment benefit scheme, too, may need a closer look as the government is hoping to extend the benefit only to fresh graduates.

Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy said that the cabinet would decide whether all women passengers could travel free on government buses. “The four state-run transport corporations run a fleet of 23,989 buses, which incur an annual expenditure of Rs12,750 crore against a revenue of Rs8,946 crore,” he said.

Realising the huge financial burden on the exchequer, the government is mulling over restricting the freebies to BPL families—the state has 1.7 crore BPL households. But the opposition has accused the Congress of “cheating” voters as it had not specified that the freebies were meant only for BPL families. “Siddaramaiah, during his election speeches, told people that it was free for him and all other people. So, it is wrong to impose any condition on these schemes now,” said JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy. “The Congress built huge expectations among the people but has failed to deliver. Delay in implementing these schemes will affect the credibility of this government.”

BJP state president Nalin Kumar Kateel threatened to stage a statewide agitation if the Congress did not implement the scheme soon. Former chief minister Basavaraj Bommai said that the Congress had “won through deceit, as it is clear that freebies only impose a financial burden on the state”. BJP legislator R. Ashok urged people not to pay electricity bills if they had consumed less than 200 units of power and asked women commuters not to buy tickets in government buses.

Already, villagers in Chitradurga are refusing to pay even the pending electricity bills. They have put up posters on their meter boxes, stating that they would no longer pay the bills as they had voted for the Congress for its free power promise. There have been reports of women commuters refusing to buy tickets in government buses, too.

But Deputy Chief Minister Shivakumar told THE WEEK that the government would “100 per cent” implement the guarantee schemes.

The ‘5G’ promise brought the Congress to power in Karnataka. Too much delay in implementing it could derail its prospects in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, where the party has set a target of winning at least 20 of 28 seats in the state.