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Another Sop Soon!

Bhubaneswar: There is a celebration-like atmosphere in Odisha’s saffron camp over the Centre announcing its decision to provide free rice to 3.25 crore people in the state. The decision is certainly one step ahead of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s much vaunted and election-winning rice scheme. While poor people in Odisha first got rice at the rate of Rs 2 a Kilogram for five years from 2008 to 2013, Naveen slashed the price from Rs 2 to Rs 1 a Kg. Naveen won subsequent elections as he turned out to become a ‘messiah’ of poor and hungry people.

Naveen has been at the helm for five consecutive times springing wonders before each election. When his BJD government got an absolute mandate in 2009 and 2014 for the cheap rice scheme, the KALIA Yojana launched in 2018 before the 2019 elections fetched him an impressive election win. Naveen won poor people’s hearts with the cheap rice scheme. The cheap rice scheme has left both the BJP and the Congress leadership worried because they did not have any such move to rival Naveen’s game plan.

Though the Central Government bears a lion’s share of the expenditure in the rice scheme, all credit goes to the BJD because he successfully implemented the programme. By the time the opposition parties could realize that Naveen won hearts of poor Odias through their bellies, he had won several elections.       

Now when the regional BJD was seriously thinking about any new surprise ahead of the 2024 general elections for Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free rice for the 3.25 poor Odias. This was certainly a master-stroke by the Modi government on Naveen’s popular cheap rice scheme. Naveen would no more get credit over the cheap rice scheme. This in fact amused the BJP leadership in the state which was evident from Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s press statement. The saffron leaders have started campaigning that Naveen, who used to boast about the cheap rice even as the state government spent less, could no longer brag about it. The credit will ultimately go to Modi for his government’s benevolent decision.

However, the political analysts think otherwise as the cheap or free rice might have lost its relevance in the present situation as people are no more hungry, though poor. There was a time when Odisha was hitting headlines over starvation deaths and child sales. However, the situation has changed in the last 15 years. The living standard of people has improved; of the 3.25 crore rice beneficiaries, above 2 crore now use smart phones.  Eating rice in the state may be a necessity for survival but no more essential as it used to be earlier. Therefore, cheap and free rice scheme might have outlived its utility now.

One group of political analysts argue that Odisha would now save Rs 1200 crore per annum as the Centre would provide rice free of cost. Therefore, Modi has in fact facilitated Naveen to launch a more attractive scheme with Rs 1200 in hand. Now, the state’s coffer is also overflowing with funds due to huge revenue collection.

Therefore, Naveen may now spring a surprise again and his government may soon announce a new scheme to ensure that the BJP does not get absolute credit from the free rice scheme. The BJD Supremo will bring some new ideas to fulfill the immediate requirement of the people. In 2008 and 2013, cheap rice was most essential for the masses, the BJD government would now stress on what is more crucial today. He may think out of the box and meet the next level of aspiration of the people to catch the imagination of Odias. His core group and think tank might have started the exercise in this regard and BJP leadership should not be worried if Naveen makes such an announcement in the run up to the next elections.

All said and done, the opposition BJP under the changed situation has been serious and puts its entire efforts on how to capture power in the state. The saffron party now hits BJD where it hurts most. The attempt to vitiate Naveen’s cheap rice scheme is one of the instances. The opposition party has also been targeting Naveen’s solid vote bank like women support. The BJP has been trying to take some portion of the women voters to give a blow to the BJD. Though its earlier Ujjawla (free cooking gas scheme) failed to achieve the political target due to its improper implementation, the BJP has now been focusing on the atrocities on women, particularly the rise in number of rape cases in the state.          

Recently, the BJP’s national level women leaders toured the 36 organizational districts of the saffron party and created awareness among the people, particularly females. The party has also been targeting the Women Self Help Groups (WSHGs) and making allegations that Naveen has been using women SHG members for political purposes, which is accepted by many in the state.

However, BJP has not so far launched any such initiative to separate women SHGs from Naveen’s BJD.  The Chief Minister regularly meets the block level women leaders and distributes loans among them and even promised to transform the WSHG members as entrepreneurs. More than 70 lakh members of the WSHGs now earn at least Rs 8,000 a month while doing their household works in villages. The women have been economically empowered and now they take a lead role in running families. The BJP needs to evolve some new scheme to counter the BJD.

Anyway, the coming days are likely to witness a lot of noise in political circles. Apart from usual electioneering, the brain work will also get importance because it is strategies that help win polls and not just the number of people attending the public meetings. The fight between the BJD and BJP will continue at least till the next elections as people have given a mixed verdict, one in favour of BJP in Dhamnagar and another supporting BJD in Padampur. Looking at the scenario, political observers are sure that BJD will certainly spring another pro-people plan to endear masses, which will be a ‘Game Changer’ in 2024 polls as rice sop has outlived its utility.