India Extends Food-for-Poor Program as Singh Eyes Poll Gain

India’s cabinet enacted proposals to expand the provision of cheap food to the poor, approving a rarely used executive ordinance to pursue a central plank of the government’s re-election strategy.

Deemed a vote winner ahead of an election scheduled for early 2014, passage of the Food Security Bill in parliament stalled in the last session as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s opponents protested alleged corruption in his administration, paralyzing proceedings in the house. The ordinance will be sent to President Pranab Mukherjee for his assent, Food Minister K.V. Thomas told reporters in New Delhi yesterday.

With a national ballot due before the end of May, Singh and his ruling Congress party are seeking to build on vows to spread the benefits of growth to the more than 800 million Indians the World Bank estimates live on less than $2 a day.

“It is a clear and outright attempt to win over rural voters before the next election,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, a policy research group. “Once this is passed, Congress doesn’t have many other things to give away before the polls.”

Congress and its chief rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are also trying to woo regional parties as opinion polls predict neither will lead their coalitions to a clear election victory. A voter survey for the CNN-IBN television channel in May found that 61 percent thought Singh should be replaced as prime minister. About 67 percent said his government has lost credibility in the face of a series of graft scandals and rising prices.

Parliament Vote

Under the food bill, 67 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people may be entitled to buy wheat, rice and coarse grains at subsidized rates. The plan involves estimated spending of 1.25 trillion rupees ($20.7 billion) in a full financial year at current prices, according to yesterday’s briefing document. Subsidies have widened the fiscal deficit amid the weakest economic growth in a decade.

In case food grains or meals can’t be supplied to those entitled to help, a monetary allowance will be provided, according to a briefing paper on the bill issued by the government yesterday. State governments will identify those who qualify for aid.

The ordinance will lapse if parliament fails to support the measure in a vote within six weeks of the opening of its next session -- scheduled for late July. The government last used an ordinance to tighten laws on sexual assault in the aftermath of a brutal gang rape in the capital New Delhi.

Snap Poll

The BJP says that while the party supports the food security bill in principle, it should be debated in parliament.

“This is a deliberate attempt to denigrate parliament,” Sushma Swaraj, a senior BJP leader, said in a posting on her Twitter page. “Why the hurry? Are they going for early elections?”

By pushing ahead with the ordinance, Congress is attempting to force the BJP onto the back foot rather than prepare the ground for a snap poll, Rao said.

“Ideally, Congress would like the BJP to oppose the bill,” Rao said. “That would play into their hands. They can project the BJP as being the main obstacle to reforms.”

The current system for distributing subsidized food and fuel to the poor is riddled with theft and inefficiency. Only 41 percent of the food set aside for feeding the poor reached households in 2005, according to a World Bank study commissioned by the government and released last year.

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