Populist as manifestos of political parties may appear to most of us, there is definitely a consensus among major parties on two things.
First, the surest way of fetching votes is a focus on rural areas with doles ranging from total loan waiver and subsidized farm loans to a stripped-down and carefully worded right to food entitlement. Secondly, no party seems to be bothered about fiscal management, something both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party religiously worshipped when they were in power. Suddenly, the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act seems a thing of the past.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the rural areas are going to benefit if parties translate words into action. It is no mean achievement that all the three major political formations (the Congress, the BJP and the Left) agree on the need for a right to food or some form of basic entitlement of food at subsidized prices. Among the three, the Left has always been for universalization of the public distribution system. Even this time, its manifesto is the same without specifying any price. However, it is the BJP and the Congress which have now included rice and wheat at subsidized prices (the Congress at Rs3 a kg and the BJP at Rs2 per kg) for the below poverty line (BPL) population as part of their manifesto. Not to be left behind, regional parties such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) have also included the promise of a Cash Transfer Scheme.
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The Congress and the BJP were in power sequentially for the last 11 years but did nothing about food security. So, why is it that everybody is talking about subsidized food for the poor? First and foremost is the experience of assembly elections in states where such populism has given electoral dividends. In states such as Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, this kind of subsidized food scheme is already operational. In some such as Karnataka, it has been promised by state governments but is yet to be operationalized.
In all these states, the promise of cheap and subsidized food has been key in getting electoral dividends. State governments have been elected, riding against anti-incumbency, such as in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, primarily because of such schemes.
Secondly, all governments and political parties recognize the strength of rural voters, who outnumber urban voters not only in numbers but also in voting percentages. Simple logic suggests that populism directed to the rural voter brings more dividends. Some, such as the TDP and the BJP, learnt it the hard way in 2004 when their efforts to showcase achievements backfired. The TDP and the BJP have seen a sudden transformation in their attitude towards subsidies and rural areas. But even the Congress, which prides itself for more than 8% rate of growth during the United Progressive Alliance regime, is shy to claim that rural India is shining. The diffidence comes from realising that despite the high rate of growth, basic issues of food security remain unresolved.
Nevertheless, the real issue is the seriousness of the parties in implementing these promises once elected. Moreover, even if implemented, will they actually bring relief to the poor in ensuring food security? It is here that both the Congress and the BJP have used carefully worded statements to deceive the electorate. And the phrase that needs closer scrutiny is BPL population. It was this tool which was almost invoked in the case of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) but was subsequently removed from the final Act due to pressure from activists. Today NREGA is largely successful because it is not targeted, and therefore, is not a slave of the faulty and inefficient BPL list.
Implementing the cheap food programme is not a drain on the exchequer as long as it remains confined to the BPL population. Nor does it necessarily raise the food subsidy bill. It may actually lead to a reduction in the food subsidy bill if the government continues to anchor it to the official poverty line and thus keeps reducing the BPL beneficiaries. With the official poverty line at already low levels and poverty expected to decline further, reducing the total number of beneficiaries is easy. That is, the tricky part is not the price of foodgrains but the BPL list, on which all parties are silent. That is why the BJP and the Congress are keen to get a right to food which only operates for the BPL population.
For those who think it is far-fetched and wishful thinking, the experience of NREGA is worth reminding. For the three years since NREGA became operational, the actual outlay on employment generation programmes in real terms was less than what was there before NREGA. For those worried about fiscal discipline, a right to food promise by the Congress and the BJP may actually help in reducing the fiscal deficit. But it is here that no party has taken a stand except for the Left, which demanded universalization and doing away with BPL targeting. Fortunately, a committee is currently looking at the issue of BPL identification in response to a Supreme Court order. One can only hope the burden of ensuring food security does not fall on the existing BPL beneficiaries.
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at email@example.com