Siddaramaiahs position in his party,and the Congresss fortunes in the Lok Sabha polls,could hinge on the one rupee rice scheme
Radha,41,a single mother of two college-going girls,works as house help in Bangalores BTM Layout. Her salary affords her subsistence and she pays for the extras,such as her daughters college fee,in instalments. Starting this month,Radha will receive 30 kilogrammes of rice at Re 1 per kg through the public distribution system. She is happy that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is keeping his election-time promise. The extra rice will help stretch the familys grocery budget just a bit more. Radha is worried that forgoing the family staple of ragi mudde,the local diet of millet mounds,and replacing it with the rice will lead to sugar kayile,the colloquial term for diabetes. But many poor families will be able to eat two meals daily because of the cheap rice,she said.
A great deal rides on the Siddaramaiah governments one rupee rice scheme in Karnataka,especially with a Lok Sabha election just around the bend. It is no coincidence that the announcement came at a time when the Congress party was busy selecting candidates in the state. Karnataka,where 28 Lok Sabha seats are up for grabs,is the Congresss big hope in southern India. It will not be easy,as the deposed BJP looks set for the return of former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa. But gains in Karnataka will be vital for the party as the scenario in the neighbouring states does not look encouraging. In Andhra Pradesh,the dithering over the Telangana statehood issue and the battles with the YSR Congress have left the party drained. In Tamil Nadu,even realigning with its former ally,the DMK,may not deliver much in terms of seats. In Kerala,a beleaguered and scam-tainted Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is hanging on by the skin of his teeth.
The one rupee rice scheme is significant for Siddaramaiahs wellbeing too. Coming to power after a nine-year hiatus,just after a non-performing and corrupt BJP government,the Congress and its chief minister bear the burden of all-round high expectations. Within the party,too,the chief minister,who joined the Congress in 2007,constantly battles the outsider tag because of his Janata Party origins. A tired Siddaramaiah has had to repeatedly assert that he is a 100 per cent Congressman. The outsider label adds to the pressure to perform and prove his loyalty by delivering spectacular results.
The one rupee rice scheme,christened by the government as Anna Bhagya,will cost Karnataka a hefty Rs 4,400 crore. By providing the economically disadvantaged with cheap rice,the chief minister was not just fulfilling an electoral pledge made in the last election,but laying the ground for the impending election,too. The scheme is to benefit nearly nine million BPL (below poverty line) families. The government has lined up several other schemes targeted at the poor,the backward and the minorities. Siddaramaiah will spend Rs 1,300 crore on waiving loans to backward classes,minorities and Dalits. The government has increased the procurement price of milk from farmers and will spend Rs 480 crore on its scheme to channel the increased supply for free to school children. In his budget,the CM announced interest-free loans to poor farmers. In all,the government will spend nearly Rs 6,000 crore on welfare schemes.
With the new schemes,Siddaramaiah,who belongs to the Kuruba backward class,may have designated himself Karnatakas new backward classes champion. To the opposition parties that accused him of launching hasty populist measures with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections,Siddaramaiah appropriately responded,Can the government delay pro-people schemes,especially when large sections of the poor are unable to eat three meals a day and many rural children are malnourished? The burden of generating revenue to fund these schemes falls squarely on the CM himself,as he is also the finance minister. But with his experience with the finance portfolio in two previous governments,tweaking the balance sheet is the least of Siddaramaiahs worries.
When he was being sworn in,his supporters gave Siddaramaiah six dissidence-free months in the chair before he was open to attacks by his opponents within the party and outside. But the gloves are surprisingly off barely two months into his new job. Some of his rivals are miffed with his quick rise within the party and his unimpeded elevation to CM. If it took him two weeks after becoming CM to recruit a minister,what was the rush to announce a slew of welfare schemes just after the swearing-in,unless he wanted to hog all the credit,they ask?
Some Congress legislators,unhappy with Siddaramaiahs rising clout and his projection as a saviour of the downtrodden,have ganged up to accuse him of taking unilateral government decisions without consulting the party. During a recent visit of AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh,the leaders demanded that a panel be formed to coordinate between the party and the government. Some see this as a reining in of the CM. If the party and the government are dragging in two different directions,Siddaramaiah himself is on a clear trajectory as the self-styled guardian of the poor.