Once upon a food bill
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Congress has a story around the welfare state. What's BJP's response?
The passage of the food security bill in the Lok Sabha is a political victory for the UPA. Its passage reveals much about the character of Indian politics. The bill will not ensure a favourable electoral outcome for the UPA. That is still an open question and will depend on lots of things. But it is a political victory in three respects: it reasserted the fact that the Congress, for good or for ill, can still get things done; it exposed the BJP's spectacular ineptness; and it showed the ideological incapacity of those looking for an economic framework beyond the Congress.
Whatever one thinks of the bill, the fact that the UPA could get Parliament to debate and pass a bill of this magnitude is something of an achievement. Parliament has been in perpetual logjam. The government's word carried no weight and credibility. At one stroke, both of these impressions have been dispelled. Whether the UPA appealed to the good conscience of legislators or arm-twisted them is beside the point. The BJP's trump card was to say that the government is dysfunctional in a major way and has no authority. That trump card is gone.
The BJP's political ungainliness was revealed at every turn. The illusion that the party has an alternative economic vision for the poor has been dispelled. If anything, this passage underscores how much more economic consensus than contestation there is in Indian politics. It has punctured, for the moment, Narendra Modi's leadership claims in a very subtle way. He cannot even seem to keep his own party together on a single message. By contrast, Sonia Gandhi's unchallenged authority came across very powerfully. It is a pity that she has used it seldom and not always for the right cause. But there is no doubt who is in charge. It is a fact that she remains a greater political asset to the UPA than anyone else. Despite some wonderful interventions, it was the BJP that looked leaderless and confused. It gives the impression of a party that now has no core convictions and therefore works at cross purposes. It even voted against the clause in the bill that would have given some flexibility on direct benefit transfer. One powerful objection to the bill was its implications for federalism. But a so-called coalition of chief ministers and ex-chief ministers could not take a stand that matched their rhetoric. Sharad Pawar, who had cogent objections about the implications of the bill for agriculture, went along. In politics, standing for what you promised counts for a lot, and on this one the Congress scored.