The National Food Security Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha. But for the Congress, the challenge has just begun.
It took four years for the second UPA government to get its flagship scheme to see the light of day in the Lok Sabha. But it now has barely eight months to convey the bill’s political message to voters—assuming, of course, that the bill is passedby the Rajya Sabha and becomes a law.
Congress party strategists are pinning their hopes on schemes like the food security act and the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) law to help the party retain power after the general elections next summer.
The food bill aims to give 75% of the rural population and 50% of urban people access to subsidised foodgrains while the DBT will transfer cash directly to beneficiaries.
Ironing out differences within the UPA and building a consensus to pass the bill was a daunting task for food minister KV Thomas and other party managers. But a bigger challenge now lies in actually rolling out the benefits and building the Congress campaign effectively around it.
“We must admit that existing schemes have many flaws. If we lack sincerity and accountability in the implementation of the food law, it will be a grave injustice to the people,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi pointed out during the food bill debate in the Lok Sabha on Monday.
Within three years of enacting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the UPA hurriedly amended the law in October 2009. The amendment bill was just two-page-long and said that NREGA will be renamed after Mahatma Gandhi and be known as MGNREGA. The move was made after some Opposition-ruled states, particularly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, trumpeted the scheme as their own.
This time, Congress leaders admit that the task of propagating the Centre’s achievement will be more difficult. Around 15 states have already launched their own schemes to provide subsidised foodgrains to the poor. Tamil Nadu has gone a step further. J Jayalalithaa’s government provides free foodgrains to families below the poverty line.
Besides, BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh and BJD-ruled Odisha have their own laws to give legal entitlement to cheap food along the lines of the UPA’s food bill.
The Congress will need better packaging to sell something that is already in circulation in many large states. The successful implementation of the food scheme also depends heavily on the state governments. The 304 amendments to the bill moved in the Lok Sabha clearly show that Opposition parties are in no mood to let the Congress take all the credit.
“The Congress should realise that if India suffers from malnutrition and hunger, the primary responsibility is that of the Congress,” the BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
The Congress has held at least four top-level meetings to roll out the scheme. Special background papers have been prepared and Sonia Gandhi said more efforts would be needed to plug the loopholes and make the scheme successful. There will be a slew of print and TV advertisements. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has also told his lieutenants to go to villages to directly spread the message.
MGNREGA and the farm loan waiver were believed to have contributed significantly to the Congress victory in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. For 2014, the Congress plank of providing food security will require more efforts to bring it electoral benefits.