As UPA's flagship scheme MGNREGA completed 10 years today, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for "failing" to understand its benefits and said the NDA government wants to "finish" a rural job guarantee scheme that has come under all-round praise.
The poor, workers, farmers, economists, the United Nations and the World Bank have understood the benefits of the scheme, he said and claimed Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley himself praised the programme in private.
"...But the Prime Minister of India has not understood this," he said at a public meeting in this village in Ananthapur district, where then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi launched the programme a decade ago.
A host of Congress leaders, including Singh, Anand Sharma, Mallikarjuna Kharge, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Ambika Soni and Meira Kumar were present at the meet, which appeared to be a show of strength by the main opposition party.
The BJP government at the Centre and TDP dispensation in Andhra Pradesh want to finish off MGNREGA. On one side there are BJP, TDP governments and on the other are farmers, workers and the poor of India and Andhra, he said.
"Congress would stand by the poor, labourers and together we will strive to save MGNREGA and see that the money (wages) reaches (them)."
Gandhi said a few days ago Jaitley came to invite him for his daughter's marriage and appreciated MGNREGA.
"He (Jaitley) told me it's a very good programme. I told him 'Why don't you say this outside? Why say so behind closed doors. Tell India that MGNREGA is a good programme'. He just smiled and did not say anything," Rahul said.
"Modi rises in Parliament and says he does not want to end MGNREGA. 'Why I don't want to close the programme...I don't want to close because it's a living monument of failure of Congress'," Rahul said.
"Modiji if you don't want to listen to us, or Manmohan Singh, at least listen to Arun Jaitley."
Funds for MGNREGA are being slashed, said Rahul, who earlier interacted with beneficiaries of the scheme, NGOs and sarpanchs in the village.
Recalling Modi's pre-election promise of bringing back black money stashed abroad and depositing Rs 15 lakh each in the account of poor people, he said, "If you don't want to deposit Rs 15 lakh, at least deposit MGNREGA money in Jan Dhan accounts.
"In the last 10 years, MGNREGA has lifted 1.4 crore people out of poverty," Rahul said.
He alleged schools and hospitals in the country are being privatised and this is adversely affecting the poor, who are finding it increasingly difficult to avail of quality healthcare or getting their children admitted to colleges and universities.
In times to come, the Congress wants an MGNREGA-type initiative in education and health sectors, he said. "When we come to power, we will not stop with MGNREGA (but take MGNREGA -type initiative to education and health)."
Describing the rural job scheme as a "revolutionary programme", former PM Singh said it was a gift of the UPA under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi to the people to assist them and fight poverty, ignorance and disease.
"It's up to the people to defend this revolutionary programme. They should convince the Modi government to desist from eroding MGNREGA, which is an instrument of people-centred development.
"Despite the enormous potential of MGNREGA, Prime Minister Modi does not like it," he said, and noted that Modi had described the scheme as an "epitome" of Congress failure and "living proof" of 60 years of the party's misrule.
"Modi seeks to kill the soul and spirit of MGNREGA," he said, and charged the NDA government with withholding payment under the programme to states.
"I am sure the people of India would convince the Modi government not to tinker with the programme," Singh said.
During interaction with Rahul, MGNREGA workers spoke about how the programme has changed their lives for better and now they can afford to send their children to schools.
Rahul said earlier 120 types of works were being taken up under the programme, but most of these are now done by contractors or with the help of machines.