By Mohammed Shafeeq, IANS
Hyderabad : The Congress government in Andhra Pradesh has decided to re-introduce the Rs.2 a kg rice scheme, which catapulted Telugu Desam party (TDP) founder N.T. Rama Rao to power in the early 1980s.
In a no-holds-barred competition of populist promises in anticipation of early elections, the state cabinet approved the scheme late Monday. It is expected to benefit 18.2 million people living below the poverty line and put an additional burden of over Rs.10 billion annually on the public exchequer.
The government has not yet decided the date from which the scheme will be implemented but official sources say it could come into effect as early as November.
Assembly polls in the state are due in 2009 but the fluid situation at the centre due to differences between the Congress-led UPA and its Left allies over the Indo-US nuclear deal has triggered talk of early general elections. At the cabinet meeting, Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy asked his ministers to be ready for snap polls.
The possibility of early polls has charged the political atmosphere in the state to an extent that almost all parties are promising freebies and subsidies to woo voters. The last week saw political somersaults and hijacking of trademark schemes of each other by two major parties.
The Congress rice scheme comes within days of TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu promising nine hours a day of free electricity supply to farmers — a scheme which brought Congress to power in 2004 elections.
In a strange turn of events, the competition of freebies was triggered by Naidu, the poster-boy of economic reforms, who strongly resisted populism during his nine-year rule (1995-2004) and even mocked at the free electricity promise of the Congress party in the last elections.
Naidu, who ridiculed the Congress by predicting that electricity wires would be used to hang clothes for drying once the scheme was implemented, overnight realised that that this promise alone could bring him back to power.
He did not stop at that. The man who while in power never tired of arguing against the politics of populism and claimed high moral ground by not making such promises is now promising everything under the sun.
Naidu, whose ‘pro-rich’ policies are blamed for the neglect of the agriculture sector, also promised to waive cooperative crop loans running into billions of rupees, Rs.2 a kg rice, houses for poor in urban areas, an amendment to enable the poor to sell assigned land given to them by the government and a special fund for controlling prices of essential commodities.
He is even considering distribution of colour television sets among poor.
“We created wealth during our rule and it is time for the distribution of this wealth,” was how Naidu justified his volte-face. While seeking suggestions from the media on what more could be done to ‘correct the imbalance’, he also promised a housing scheme for members of the fourth estate if his party was voted to power.
Not be left behind, the smaller parties have started making all sorts of promises too.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised it would achieve separate statehood for Telangana, regardless of the fact that it had opposed the demand while it was leading a coalition at the centre.
And the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which is yet to fulfil its promise of a separate state, promised 13 hours of free electricity to farmers in the new state.