Food security bill: Why Congress won't gain in 2014 LS polls
The food security legislation could bridge the disconnect between the Congress and the government on the one hand and the party’s top leadership and the organisation down the rungs on the other in the run-up to the polls.
The UPA II got its trophy bill passed. Now, let’s get straight into the important political question: Can the government come back to power for the third time riding on the Food Security Act? It is not an easy question to answer.
There’s no conclusive evidence that the MNREGA helped it win 2009. In fact, many economists have been arguing hard that it is the high growth during the period that ensured a repeat mandate for the coalition. The fact that close to 115 seats of the UPA’s 206 came from the metros and towns buttresses that argument. The Act, assuring legal guarantee for at least 100 days of work, is designed for rural areas, there’s no reason why urbanites would go ecstatic about it.
Assuming that MNREGA was the game changer for the UPA, which many in the Congress believe it was, what is the guarantee that the Food Security Act would play a similar role for it in 2014? To begin with, the former was launched in 2006. There was enough time for its rollout and the popular goodwill from it, if there was any, to consolidate in favour of the government. That is certainly not the case with the Food Security Act. With elections less than a year away, the Congress would be foolish to expect a mood of favourable positivity around it across the country. Even if there is some goodwill, it is not clear how it would translate into electoral gains.
The party would not be unaware that the electoral impact of the Act would be limited. However, what it could be aiming at is providing its rank and file a potent talking point in the run-up to the polls. The food security legislation could bridge the disconnect between the party and the government on the one hand and the party’s top leadership and the organisation down the rungs on the other. One of the biggest problems for the Congress after it dumped socialism to embrace economic liberalism post 1990s has been communicating the reforms process to the members at the low rungs of the party hierarchy. This, in turn, crippled the communication between the latter and the rural voters. This reflected in the results of 2009. The BJP had a similar problem in 2004.
The party is now making amends. It could be a case of good economics losing out to populist politics, but that is the last thing on the mind of the Congress now. Food security would touch an emotional chord among the rural masses and the party workers would find it easier to communicate its virtues than those of economic reforms and their long-term implications. It might not yield rich electoral dividends - MNREGA had not - but there’s at least something the party and the government can talk about in unison without sounding confused. It can now claim that it never abandoned its aam-admi character or focus.
There is a perceptible design to the Congress’ moves in recent times. On the back foot over charges of big ticket corruption, poor governance, mismanagement of the economy and crippling policy blunders, the party does not see much hope in the urban areas. As pre-poll surveys indicate, the party might lose a big chunk of the urban constituencies in 2014. It is seeking redemption elsewhere. This explains party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis on rural and tribal areas and his reluctance to address the concerns of the urban India.
Now coming back to the original question, would Food Security Act deliver the goods for the Congress and the UPA it heads? The answer is both yes and no. Political analysts generally overestimate the vote-pulling powers of such moves. They also tend to ignore the fact that given the fragmentation of the vote bases at the state level, there’s little scope of the benefits of such initiatives going exclusively to one party. The only gain for the Congress could be better internal cohesion, not much beyond that.
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