Analysis: Can food bill turn the tide for India’s ruling coalition?By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay Aug 28, 2013 12:33PM UTC
By getting within handshaking distance of enacting a law to ensure food security for the majority of Indians, the country’s lawmakers have sought to redeem themselves and ward off the charge that the entire time in Parliament is spent scoring points over one another.
However, though there is unanimity that the decision has been forced on the country’s parties by the Congress party – the main constituent of the ruling coalition, there is no certainty that the move will enable the ruling coalition to reap electoral dividends. The National Food Security Bill has been presented as a game changer, but doubts are being expressed over the ability of the legislation to deliver adequate votes several months down the line and enable the Congress to return to power once again. It needs to be kept in mind that elections in India are not due before April-May 2014 and Congress leaders, including all-powerful Mrs Sonia Gandhi, have repeatedly stated that there are no plans to advance them.
But there is no denying that in a country where ritualistic promises of providing food security have been made by political parties for years, it is now just a matter of time before a minimum guarantee of food will become legally enshrined. This is a major development and has naturally generated a howl of protest from the rich and the corporate lobby which sees the move as a recipe for economic disaster given the already high CAD and the crashing value of the Indian rupee.
In many ways, it is ironic that while Manmohan Singh initiated the process of economic liberalisation in India in 1991 as finance minister, the time when India began abandoning policies of economic inclusion and opening the markets, he is prime minister when the government has been forced to return to the path of economic inclusion.
This is primarily because of political pressure on the government from the Congress party which has in the past nine years often acted as the political watchdog and got the government to initiate several steps, even if key leaders in it were against it. No wonder that Sonia Gandhi has been repeatedly listed as one of the most powerful women in the world in poll after poll since 2004.
The Congress party, it must be understood, has also not acted of its own volition. Gandhi and other senior leaders were quick to realise that the party’s surprise victory in 2004 was a result of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition being focussed solely on the upper and middle classes in the six years its governed Indian from 1998 to 2004.
As a result, the Congress party allowed itself to be influenced by a clutch of middle-class activists who have traditionally been identified with the ‘politically-correct’ class in a country that has followed the basic Nehruvian tenets of secularism and welfare state.
The Food Bill itself is rooted in a public interest litigation filed at the Supreme Court in 2001 by a key civil liberties group – the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. In a series of orders, the apex court also forced the hand of the government and the legislation is the result of a lengthy process of preparing the political class for the law and when that failed, ensuring that all parties were presented with a fait accompli and creating a situation where opposing the Bill beyond a point could turn out to be electorally counter-productive.
There are however fears that the Bill is going to further drain the exchequer and that it is not going to be easy to ensure swift roll-out of highly subsidised food grains throughout the country. It has presently been already initiated in three Congress party controlled states, but it remains to be seen how the law is implemented in other states especially where non-Congress governments are in power.
The principal opposition party, BJP, has already criticised the law saying that it was full of loopholes and pledged to plug them if it comes to power after the next polls. As far as the Indian people are concerned, the food security law has the possibility of becoming a significant electoral issue. But the ruling party has to contend with the fact that the average Indian’s spending on food is lower than in the past when compared with the overall spending. Experts say that it is because of this that, despite soaring inflation, public anger on the issue has not come to the fore. This alone is the reason behind scepticism of the food security law being a game changer.