In an effort to consolidate urban vote base, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah earlier this month opened over 100 Indira canteens in Bengaluru, which would offer subsidised food for the urban poor. The canteens, modelled on the Amma canteen that brought back the late J Jayalalithaa into power in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, offer breakfast at Rs 5 and lunch and dinner at Rs 10, with each outlet to serve around 500 people at a time. This writer discusses how political parties have time and again played the subsidised food card to satiate the hunger for votes
The late H N Bahuguna was once asked by one of his close associates what two things he would do if he becomes the Prime Minister. The veteran leader had replied that one thing he would certainly do was to ensure that the price of bread is brought abysmally low so that no one would go to bed hungry.
That was sought to be done in urban Karnataka with the launch of the Indira Canteens in Bengaluru earlier this month with much fanfare by Rahul Gandhi
who is seeking to seize the initiative in the poll-bound state to retain power amid times of crisis for the grand old party.
No doubt that it is a desperate measure to attract the urban poor, but it also signals a fight back at a time when Congress
has lost from almost all major cities including the four metros in the Narendra Modi
surge in the last Lok Sabha elections. Bengaluru was no exception.
Karnataka is the last bastion of the Congress
being the single largest state it has in its kitty when its footprint has drastically dwindled and the last victory it witnessed was in Punjab recently after many a defeat in several states since 2014.
The move has also come at a time when the Narendra Modi
dispensation is at its zenith with BJP
for the first time able to install its men in four top constitutional positions -- the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister and the Lok Sabha Speaker. Loyalists of Modi are beating the drums of TINA—There Is No Alternative-to the Leader.
Interestingly, when the chips were down 40 years back Indira Gandhi had started the fight back against the then Janata party government from Karnataka itself. The Chikmaglur Lok Sabha bypoll she contested became historic as she made mincemeat of her detractors by a resounding win. “Ek sherni, sau languor, Chikmaglur, Chikmaglur” was the famous slogan then. It projected Indira as the lioness and those opposing her as monkeys. The rest is history. It is said that the pro-poor 20 point programme and the land reforms in the state had done the trick that time.
The fact is that what the Congress
is also doing is using the late Prime Minister’s name to connect with the poor knowing full well that Indiraamma has a special place in the hearts of people of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the two states she had represented in Parliament at different times.
Much before the last Lok Sabha polls when defeat was staring Congress
in the face in the wake of a series of scams and scandals in the UPA II, a political scientist had remarked that there was an urgent need for the ruling party to turn Left and be seen as one which cares for the poor.
That time the National Food Security Act was brought but almost at the fag end of the government term when the narrative had totally changed and the poor generally failed to get the benefit of the ambitious legislation.
Incidently, the late N T Rama Rao was perhaps the first leader in independent India who used rice to telling effect to reach out to the poor. His cheap rice scheme had played a significant role in ending the stranglehold of the Congress
on Andhra Pradesh after the TDP founder conceived the idea in 1983. Although NTR lost the 1989 Assembly polls, he came back to power in 1994 when he promised he would offer rice at Rs 2 a kg and clamp total prohibition.
Y S Rajsekhar Reddy had re-introduced the NTR scheme in 2008 to reap rich electoral benefits in the Assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh the following year.
Interestingly, in 2008 the then West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had also played the NTR card by reducing the ration shop prices of rice, pulses and palm oil, a few months after the panchayat and civic poll jolts to the ruling Left Front.
For last 15 years or so, the politics of cheap rice is being played by Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik to keep his hold on power. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh is known as “chawal wale baba” for his schemes providing cheap rice in the tribal dominated state.
There were reports about a Ram Roti Yojana in urban areas of BJP
ruled Madhya Pradesh some 7-8 years ago, but nothing seemed to have happened. There was also a Kamal Roti Yojana, but there was nothing to write home about it.
The Indira canteen
scheme could be a copycat attempt to emulate neighbouring Tamil Nadu where the late J Jayalalithaa’s Amma Canteens that have proved a hit among the people as also for the AIADMK electorally.
But the good thing is that Congress
under Karnataka Chief Minister S Siddharamaiah has shown that it is more than in the game in the face of an aggressive BJP.
Incidentally, the Arvind Kejriwal
government two years back had spoken of starting AAP canteens in the national capital, but later nothing happened. With AAP in crisis, Kejriwal could revive the scheme to bring back the old magic.
It is no small consolation that political parties are now gradually realizing that for their own good something needs to be done to fight the growing hunger in the urban jungle in times of jobless growth and growing rich-poor divide. The card of subsidised food is being played to satiate the hunger for votes.
“To a man with an empty stomach food is God”, the Mahatma had famously remarked. The test is not far off.
Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.