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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

Can Congress win elections with food bill?

Varghese K George, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, August 27, 2013
First Published: 13:43 IST(27/8/2013) | Last Updated: 19:49 IST(27/8/2013)

Will the food security bill win votes for the Congress? There are no easy answers.

There is a section of opinion in politics which believes that the victory of Congress in 2009 had nothing to do with rural employment, healthcare or increase in agriculture prices.

This section believes – and argues – that it was the middle class appeal for the Congress that catapulted the party to power yet again. It was Manmohan Singh's popularity among India's emerging middle classes who live in its urban centres that won 2009 elections for Congress. They argue, alongside other economic rationale, that there isn't even a political logic for government to be high on welfare. Welfare doesn't win votes at all.

Keeping this argument aside, and assuming that welfare indeed does pay off politically, who will get that benefit? Will it be the Congress that is heading the Central government that has designed these schemes – the latest being food security – or the state governments that implement them? After all, the hand that feeds would be those of the state government. They are the ones seen on the ground. Read: Sonia's ambitious food bill wins LS vote

The situation becomes even more curious, as many states ruled by or dominated by the Congress, would lose in terms of subsidised grain after the new scheme comes into place. Poorer states, where the Congress is marginal - such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, will see substantial increase in allocation of subsidised grain.  So the political benefits, if any, will go to the parties that rule these states, one can argue.

Especially, when we consider that these states have sizable rural populations and the latest law proposes subsidized foodgrain for up to 75% of the rural and up to 50% of the urban population. Eligible households would get five kg of foodgrain per person every month – Rs. 3 a kilo for rice, Rs. 2 a kilo for wheat and Rs. 1 a kilo for coarse grains. It also has a special focus on nutritional support to the poorest of the poor, women and children.

Cunning chief ministers and regional satraps have smartly appropriated the political capital for a lot of existing central schemes, particularly those giving subsidized food, health and rural jobs. Some CMs began printing rural jobs cards with their photographs, which was countered by the centre by prefixing 'Mahatma Gandhi' to the 'National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.' Another common trick of the chief ministers is to add a bit more to an existing central scheme and announce it as their own - the latest in this category is demarcating 20% of development allocations to minority-populated regions, a step announced by Uttar Pradesh's Akhilesh Singh government recently.

All this nudge us to a conclusion that the Congress may well be able to increase its emotional capital among the poor of India, but turning that into political capital, and further, into voting for the party is tall order. It may be possible, but it is difficult. Read: A debate over food, calories and costs

Besides, experts opine, hunger is not an individual problem but has its roots in the country's macroeconomics: the nature of employment generation and the terms of trade between agriculture and the other sectors.

The government, through its policies, determines these macroeconomic variables. For instance, in spite of high growth after 2003, hunger persists. Only the government can provide the correctives and end hunger. So the food security law is only a corrective measure to the other policies being pursued by the government; it does not solve the basic problem of income generation. Read: This isn't food security, it's vote security, says BJP

If it is assumed that an additional 30 crore people would get the cheaper food, the demand for other items of consumption would rise significantly, giving the sluggish economy a boost.

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