With an eye on Food Security Bill, Sonia stoops to conquer

It's hard for politicians to break their habits, which is why politics is in the main about sticking to established party positions, however unreasonable they may be. The cacophonous mutual recriminations that go on between Congress and BJP spokespersons (and other assorted side players) on prime-time television everyday is daily testimony to the fact that finding common ground in politics is a bridge too far.

Some of this is, of course, born of ideological fidelity, and an understandable unwillingness to compromise on cherished principles. After all, if you trade in your principles too easily, you're only a parody of comedian Groucho Marx, who said in jest: "These are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

But in equal measure, a lot of it is about sheer cussedness, which manifests itself in the reflexive resort to antagonistic positions, merely to spite the other side. It's a bit like that other comedic segment, also from Groucho Marx, where he sings: " I don't know what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, I'm against it!"

In such a combative context, you don't often see hands reaching across the political aisle, so to speak. Which is why proceedings in our Parliament have been gridlocked for what seems an eternity now, with little or no prospect of an early resolution in sight.

Sonia Gandhi reckons that the Food Security Billl is critical to securing the Congress' political fortunes. AFP

Sonia Gandhi reckons that the Food Security Billl is critical to securing the Congress' political fortunes. AFP

On Tuesday, in Parliament, however, a frail hand reached out and attempted to break the ice. According to media accounts, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, while leaving Parliament after another fruitless day there, espied the BJP's Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj walking ahead of her, and quickened her pace to catch up with her. She then evidently gave Sushma Swaraj a hug (or a half-hug, to go by other accounts that strive for numerical exactitude), and the two chatted gaily and animatedly for a while.

No weighty matters of politics were evidently discussed, but the interaction made for great optics, merely because we see so little of it.  Particularly since it came barely a few days after Sushma Swaraj accused Sonia Gandhi of inciting her partymen in Parliament to heckle her - and effectively widened the gulf between the Treasury Benches and the Opposition - the gesture was all the more striking.

It's not immediately clear whether Sonia Gandhi's Grand Gesture will prove sufficient to persuade the BJP to break the gridlock in Parliament. Early indications are that the BJP isn't ready to abandon its demand for the resignation of Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, the latest in a long line of Ministers who have been added to the UPA government's Hall of Shame.

 

But it is easy to understand Sonia Gandhi's motives for swallowing her pride and even making  the effort to reach out to Sushma Swaraj with even just a half-embrace. It's about political survival. And for someone who is mercilessly mocked by her political detractors, principally on the far right, Sonia Gandhi has displayed far sharper instincts for political survival than many leaders in the Opposition ranks, many of whom get far more credit for the political wiliness than she does.

Sonia Gandhi has calculated, correctly, that the Congress' political fortunes in the next elections ride on securing passage for the Food Security Bill, which has been introduced in Parliament but stands no chance of passage in the next three days without the BJP easing the gridlock there. For all the bluster of her party spokespersons' rhetoric, she realises that the Congress has a rotten record of governance to defend, but that the Food Security Bill, with its promise of subsidised foodgrains for two-thirds of the population, could prove as much a political game-changer as the NREGA employment guarantee scheme was in 2009.

Her political instincts on this count may be correct. Such is the emotive appeal of this populist scheme that even the BJP is committed to supporting the Food Security Bill, without adequate consideration of the Bill's many demerits. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has, of course, articulated a nuanced critique of the Bill on the grounds that the one-size-fits-all scheme would undermine the federal structure of the Constitution and institutionalise "legal entitlements" and "the culture of government subsidies and doles". But that is not the BJP's official line.

There are many grounds on which the Food Security Bill can be faulted, and even those who support the idea in principle point out, as Agrima Bhasin (with the Centre for Equity Studies) does, that a "robust understanding of the 'right to food', premised on hunger, has been weakened to mean a passive 'right to receive' whatever the state wants to give in the name of food security."

Others point out that the Bill will "do little to genuinely address the real nutritional needs of the nation, but will distort the grain market, and saddle the system with yet another legal entitlement that cannot be undone." And that by subsidising cereals on a massive scale and messing with the market, routing delivery through the leaky and corruption-ridden public distribution system, the Bill will likely create more problems that it will solve.

But given the hollowness of the debate in Parliament surrounding the Food Security Bill thus far, where any nuanced critique of the Bill is projected as tantamount to starving the poor to death, the BJP finds itself in a bit of a political bind. It doesn't oppose the Bill on principle; in fact, it supports it. And it doesn't want to be seen to be seen to be blocking proceedings in Parliament - and give political room for the Congress to claim that its well-intentioned effort to ensure food security is being thwarted by a cussed Opposition.

Sonia Gandhi's gesture on Tuesday in reaching out to Sushma Swaraj is in that sense a shrewd political strategy. If it succeeds, a debate can ensue in Parliament, and the passage of the Bill secured - since the BJP too supports it. But if not, the Congress can justifiably claim that measure failed despite Sonia Gandhi's efforts to reach out to the Opposition.