Congress and BJP have zeroed in on rice in their manifestos to gain political mileage

Rice politics can be traced back to the 1967 Tamil Nadu Assembly poll

The politics of rice.

What has been a major factor in the Assembly elections in several States has become a national issue. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, in their manifestos for the Lok Sabha elections, have zeroed in on rice and wheat to gain political mileage. The Congress, in its manifesto first, has said 25 kg of rice or wheat would be given to families living below the poverty line (BPL) at Rs. 3 a kg every month. The BJP, in its manifesto, went a step further, promising 35 kg of rice or wheat every month at Rs. 2.

The Congress has committed itself to enacting a ‘right to food’ law, guaranteeing access for all people, especially the vulnerable sections, to sufficient quantities of food. The BJP has stated foodgrains will be supplied under an “improved and expanded Antyodaya Anna Yojana.” The commodities will be available against “food coupons” redeemable in public distribution system (PDS) shops as well as private outlets.

The roots of the politics of rice can be traced to the 1967 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, now an ally of the Congress, promised to supply three measures of rice (approximately 4.5 kg) at Re. 1 at a time when there was a shortage. The Congress lost that election. On coming to power, the DMK implemented the scheme in a modified form, providing a measure at Re.1 on, a trial basis, in a few places. It did not last long.

The impact of rice on the elections is associated with 1967, but there is a previous instance that is not as well remembered. In the 1952 Assembly election to the erstwhile Madras State, the prevailing food shortage proved costly for the Congress. The then Chief Minister, P.S. Kumaraswami Raja, lost from Srivilliputtur, though the Congress emerged as the single largest party, winning 152 out of the 375 seats.

In the run-up to the 2006 Assembly elections, the DMK promised to provide “quality rice” at Rs. 2 a kg. Immediately after being sworn in for the fifth time in May 2006, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi ordered the launch of the scheme. Last year, on the 100th birth anniversary of the former Chief Minister, C.N. Annadurai, the price of rice supplied through the PDS was reduced to Re. 1.

Other States too are not immune to the allure of the politics of rice.

Andhra Pradesh, no stranger to this type of politics, saw the launch of the Rs.2-a-kg rice scheme in April 2008 under the Congress rule. The Telugu Desam Party twice captured power — 1983 and 1994 — promising such a scheme. But, on both occasions, the scheme was implemented only briefly.

In the mid-1990s, the Janata Dal government in Karnataka laid out a plan to sell rice at Rs.3.20 a kg. The former Orissa Chief Minister, Biju Patnaik, promised to copy the TDP scheme and the Shiv Sena announced subsidised rice in Maharashtra.

When Karnataka went to the Assembly elections in May 2008, the BJP and the Congress once again resorted to rice politics. The Congress said it would provide 25 kg of rice at Rs. 2, while the BJP promised rice at Rs. 2 to the below poverty line (BPL) families. This promise helped the BJP come to power, but it is yet to be fulfilled.

Chhattisgarh, another rice-growing State, also saw competitive rice politics being played out during the Assembly elections in last November. Since April 2007, the BJP government had been implementing a scheme for supplying rice at Rs. 3 a kg to the poor. During the campaign, the Congress promised to give rice at Rs. 2 a kg to all ration cardholders. In response, the BJP said it would offer rice at Re. 1 to the poorest of the poor and at Rs. 2 a kg to the poor. Eventually, the party retained power. Now, the scheme has been put on hold till the completion of the Lok Sabha elections.

The Congress and the BJP of course deny that their latest promises about rice have been made with an eye gaining electoral mileage in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

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