Political gridlock forced yet another delay to the government’s potentially vote-winning food security law, as the cabinet ditched the ordinance route at the last minute in the face of opposition from ally Sharad Pawar and the BJP held out the promise of supporting it if it were brought before Parliament.
The food security bill, first promised by the Congress when it went to the polls in 2009, seeks to give two-thirds of Indians a legal right to cheap grains, and could form the centrepiece of the party’s pitch for re-election.
“Our intention is to get the food security bill passed in a special session of Parliament and we are making one more effort to ask the Opposition parties to support us,” finance minister P Chidambaram told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Thursday.
The meeting had been expected to recommend the promulgation of an ordinance, a provision to enact laws outside a Parliament session. The resultant law would have had to have been approved by lawmakers within six months.
Instead, the government decided to seek talks with all parties to find a way forward.
Pawar, who is the agriculture minister and leads the NCP, the Congress’ biggest ally, spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to express his reluctance to back the ordinance. He has in the past spoken out against an entitlement-based food programme unless it were accompanied by matching investments in agriculture.
The BJP, the main opposition party, also made the ordinance route virtually untenable by pledging conditional support provided the draft law were brought before Parliament.
“We will welcome a debate and discussion in Parliament on the food bill,” party chief Rajnath Singh said.
The cabinet decided that an informal team comprising food minister KV Thomas, home minister Sushilkumar Shinde and parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath should lead the talks.
A special session can be called within the shortest possible time and since it is called to thrash out a particular issue, the usual practice of giving a 10-15 day notice period for question hour, etc can be waived.
Thomas said the government may yet revive plans to push an ordinance through, adding that it had not been formally withdrawn. It may suit the government's purpose to keep the ordinance sword hanging over the bill in case of disruptions to Parliament by the Opposition on one issue or the other.