As Congress continued to chalk out a strategy to pass its Food Security Bill, there’s one political party it can’t count on for support: the Samajwadi Party. A regional heavyweight, SP governs the politically influential (and India’s most populous) State of Uttar Pradesh. At the national level, it’s not part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition but bails out the Government during crucial parliamentary votes. When it comes to the Bill guaranteeing cheap food to 70 per cent of the population, the SP has chosen to be a critic, calling it “anti-farmer.” “We are openly opposing the Bill because it will kill agriculture in this country and drive farmers to suicide,” said Naresh Agarwal, a general secretary of the party. “Congress has got it all wrong.”
The Food Security Bill is a key element of Congress’ re-election bid for 2014, at a time when the party is battling corruption scandals and an anti-incumbency sentiment. But the party has faced a tough time trying to get the Bill through Parliament and is seeking other routes to push it into law.
Loathe to wait for Parliament’s next session, which is not expected until mid July, Congress is considering convening a special session of Parliament to vote on the Bill.
The other option being discussed is passing the Bill as an ordinance, or executive order. This would be a temporary law and only valid until the next session of Parliament in July.
Most political parties have criticised plans to pass the Bill without a vote but have not resisted the proposed law altogether, for fear of being seen as anti-poor. The Samajwadi Party is the exception. Mr. Agarwal said that a large number of the beneficiaries would be farmers, who don’t need free grain because they eat what they grow. Corrupt intermediaries who often run the public distribution system could then pay farmers off for their share of grain and sell it in the open market, which is likely to lead to an over-supply of grain and a collapse in prices, he said.
“Congress is making its policies from air conditioned rooms,” said Mr. Agarwal. “These policies are not going to help their cause.”
Analysts say the SP’s opposition is a canny political calculation. Its voter base is made up mainly of farmers and small traders, rather than Dalits (those whom the Hindu caste system considers outcastes,) and other rural poor, whom the Bill is designed to benefit.
Congress has said this Bill will help fight malnutrition and hunger in India. Repeated attempts to reach Congress leaders for comment were not successful.
SP’s opposition is deeply rooted in Uttar Pradesh’s electoral politics, according to political watchers in the region. There SP and Congress are rivals, fighting for the state’s Muslim vote. “The Congress and Samajwadi party may be allies at the center, but they are rivals in the state,” said Badri Narayan, a professor of political democracy at the GB Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad in UP.
“The SP doesn’t want Congress to build any kind of base here,” or to gain political mileage from the food security Bill, Mr. Narayan added.
Muslims are likely to vote for the party which looks like the favourite, he said.
The SP and Congress appear to have an unusual political relationship.
SP is one of two parties that propped up the Congress led Government earlier this year after one of its allies quit over differences on foreign policy on the issue of treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka. However on other matters, such as the Government’s approach on border issues with China and now the food Bill, the SP has been bitterly critical of Congress. “It is a twin strategy,” Mr. Narayan said. “The SP doesn’t want to destabilise the Government, but wants to keep it under pressure at all times.”