Millennium Post

Who’s afraid of food security?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) eagerness for an early general election is born of the fear that the Congress may have found a brahmastra (ultimate weapon) in the food security law. The BJP wants, therefore, to bring the election forward so that it can use the current popular disenchantment with the ruling party over inflation, scams and a stalled economy to pip the Congress at the post.
However, since the Congress, too, is aware of its ‘ethical and governance deficits,’ as finance minister P Chidambaram acknowledged not long ago, it has fallen back on the populist measures favoured by Sonia Gandhi to revive its prospects. Before the food security and land acquisition bills were introduced in Parliament, the Congress was steadily falling behind the BJP in the opinion polls in terms of the number of Lok Sabha seats. It will be interesting to see how it now fares. In the meantime, the BJP’s nervousness is obvious. There are two reasons for it. One is that it cannot criticise the two new laws too sharply since it supported both of them. The other is that the welfare measures will be in contrast to its poster-boy, Narendra Modi’s development agenda. Unlike Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh’s provisions for supplying cheap grains to the underprivileged, which rival the food security law, Modi’s image is that of a pro-business, and not pro-poor, leader.

Not surprisingly, Gujarat is a model for the Jagdish Bhagwati school of economists, who argue that growth is a more effective panacea for eliminating poverty than a top-down, government-sponsored helpline for those below the poverty line. While an intellectual battle between the two models, represented by Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, can be a riveting affair on television and the ‘pink’ newspapers, the belief among politicians across the board is that it is the second version which has greater credence among a wide section of the people while the first one is backed mainly by the middle class. The reason why Modi is believed to have acquired a strong base among the latter, and is a favourite of the corporate sector, is because of this preference for his economic tactics with a pronounced bias in favour of the private sector. It is understandable, therefore, why Modi wanted to delay the adoption of the food law by calling for a meeting of chief ministers on it, and especially on its supposedly anti-federal aspects since the legislation empowers the centre to direct the states on its implementation.   

The BJP, however, for once decided to ignore its poster-boy’s arguments since it realised that such filibustering will show up the party not only as habitual obstructionist, but also anti-poor. Since it is politically fatal in India to be seen in such a light, the BJP muted its ‘nays’ against the bill, thereby enabling its passage. Except for former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, who called the measure fiscally disastrous, the BJP refrained from stressing this aspect of the law lest it be seen as right-of-centre. It was left, therefore, to the pro-market economists to emphasise the negative features of both the food and land acquisition laws while the political class displayed a rare unity, born mainly of cynical calculations aimed at showing how their hearts bled for the poor. In the case of the Congress, the cynicism relates to the fact that even the distinguished economists in its ranks have chosen to ignore the fears of the economy sinking under the burden of the huge subsidies which the food law entails, and also because the industrialists are likely to shy away from investing because of the difficulties of obtaining land under the new land acquisition law, under which it may take as long as five years to acquire a plot.

If Sonia Gandhi has nevertheless decided to push through the two measures, the probable explanation is that she has chosen to live in the present without any thought for the future. Her aim is to win the next general election on the basis of populism in accordance with the belief in the left-of-centre National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by her that it was the rural employment programme which was primarily responsible for the Congress’s 2009 victory and not the nuclear deal or the high growth rates of the time.

Sonia Gandhi’s calculation apparently is that by the time the ill-effects of the two laws are felt by the economy, the government will be well ensconced in power. Her admission that resources will have to be found for the food law shows that she is not unaware of the profligate nature of the initiative. There is little doubt that she has imbibed all the lessons in amoral realpolitik, which she learnt as a young daughter-in-law in Indira Gandhi’s household. Their basis was to pose as a champion of the poor, engaged in doling out goodies in a paternalistic exercise characteristic of a benevolent feudal family.

If she succeeds in enabling the Congress to pull ahead of the BJP, she and the crypto-communists of the NAC will rule the roost in the near future at the expense of accomplished right-wing economists.IPA
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