Why Congress can't tell opponents not to politicise Food Security Ordinance

Critics of the National Food Security Ordinance (NFSO) have been rapped on the knuckles twice in two days by prominent Congress leaders.

Yesterday, Digvijaya Singh told Congress bete noire, Narendra Modi, to stop playing politics over the food security law. In response to Modi’s barbs about the ordinance being a meaningless piece of paper, Singh said the main purpose of the ordinance was to ensure that food reached the poor and “it would be good if Modi did not politicise it".

Today, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, while addressing a press conference on the state of the economy, called the ordinance “the most important legislative measure of UPA-2”.

With a piously stern expression on his face, he said, “I know that there are people who mock at the ordinance. I feel sorry for them. Nothing is more important than food security.”

Singh’s advice to Modi is not entirely misplaced. After all, the BJP’s opposition to the food security law is not a principled one, centred on the rejection of an inherently flawed rights-based entitlements approach. Political parties are united in championing bad laws and the food security law was no different. The BJP knew the vote-pulling power of this law and simply wanted to deny Congress the credit for legislating it. Even as the party stalled Parliament during the last session, BJP leaders were constantly making public statements that they wanted the National Food Security Bill passed.

Chidambaram criticised opponents of the Food Bill. PTI

Chidambaram criticised opponents of the Food Bill. PTI

But the Congress asking people not to politicise the NFSO is amusing at best and galling at the worst. The right to food legislation has been about nothing but politics from the start.

Riding high on the so-called success of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the UPA-1 had promised a right to food in the 2009 election campaign and got set to work on this soon after it came to power. (This much one will have to concede to the Congress – it doesn't make entirely empty poll promises.)

Is ramming through an economically unsound law not playing politics? That too, with issues as serious as poverty and hunger?

It is no one’s case that people in India are not going hungry, though the government surveys have themselves shown that the number is declining. (See an earlier report here) But if people don’t have access to food it is not because there is no food – India has far more than its needs for its buffer stocks – but because people don’t have purchasing power. Legislating a right to food does not address this problem, which is at the root of food insecurity.

There has been enough evidence that the food security law is going to play havoc with government finances. The deleterious domino effect this will have on the economy, which already appears to be in free-fall mode, has been pointed out time and again. Economist Surjit Bhalla has pointed out that the Bill will cost 3 per cent of GDP in the first year alone. Bhalla will no doubt be dismissed as a free market fundamentalist, but equally alarmist caution has been voiced from economists who are part of the government establishment. But the Congress leadership has not paid heed. Is that not playing politics?

Chairman of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, Ashok Gulati, has pointed out the deleterious effect of the food security law on agriculture and the entire food economy in a paper, National Food Security Bill: Challenges and Options, (co-authored with Jyoti Gujral and T. Nandakumar). Those concerns too have been ignored. Is that not playing politics?

And yet all these critics of the food security bill - the majority of whom are economic right-wingers, but social and political centrists – are dismissed with just one damning indictment: they are not pro-poor. Never mind that they have far more sound suggestions to pull people out of poverty and ensure food security. The target of Chidambaram’s admonishment was Modi, but it could well have been directed at all these critics of the food security law.

Because in the binary world that the Congress seeks to push public discourse into, if you are a trenchant critic of the party, then you are a rank majoritarian communalist enamoured of Modi. And if you are not an ardent supporter of the food security ordinance, then you are an unfeeling soul who wants the millions of the poor to starve to death.

Seetha is a senior journalist and author