The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Election holiday for economics

Bhopal, Sept. 25: Manmohanomics and Sonia Gandhi’s thrust on power-sector reforms can wait till the elections.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh announced yesterday a Rs 800-crore bonanza for some 12 lakh electricity consumers, writing off their dues for the last three years.

Sources close to him said he was least concerned about criticism from reforms guru Manmohan Singh as the Madhya Pradesh Congress was facing a close call in the November Assembly polls. “Good economics does not always make good politics,” the chief minister told a group of Congress workers in Bhopal recently. He added that both 10 Janpath and 24 Akbar Road would understand his compulsions.

The chief minister, often credited with reforms and privatisation programmes, said it was a “mistake” to have slapped power tariff on farmers, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and all those below the poverty line.

The additional burden of Rs 800 crore would cripple a near bankrupt state-run Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board, which is struggling to survive with a budgetary subsidy of Rs 1,400 crore. Digvijay sought to put up a brave face, saying he would cut grants from “other departments” to pay for the free power. He said the state electricity board would be given Rs 800 crore in the next two years and get an interest of 10 per cent on the outstanding amount.

In political terms, the move is aimed at taking the sting out of the BJP’s campaign — the party’s chief ministerial nominee, Uma Bharti, had got a form filled, promising to waive power tariff if voted to power. Terming her action “sheer hypocrisy”, Digvijay wondered why the BJP-led government at the Centre had done nothing to prevent Bharti from going populist.

The sequence of events and Digvijay’s flip-flop on power reforms display an interesting pattern. In 1993, the Congress manifesto granted free power to farmers. Its 1998 version did not mention the offer but the freebies continued to flow. In 2001, Digvijay, riding high on the popularity chart, withdrew freebies that he had announced earlier, asking farmers to cough up power bills. But the move did not yield much as only 19 per cent complied. Three years of drought and the state electricity board’s tough measures to recover power dues from reluctant farmers sparked political outrage.

Three days ago, when he sat with colleagues to discuss ticket distribution, he was bluntly told that the Congress would lose the polls if he continued to charge power tariff from the “hapless farmers and weaker sections”.

The chief minister’s sop comes barely a fortnight before the election commission’s code of conduct — prohibiting such policy pronouncements — is set to come into force.

The power freebie is, perhaps, the most attractive pre-election sop doled out so far. For the last six-months, Digvijay has been on a sop showering spree — he promised an increase in the job quota for the backward classes and an action plan for Dalits and minorities, and granted patta (land lease) to the landless and tribals.

Digvijay, however, said he was committed to power reforms, patting his own back for introducing the meter system. “There is no question of going back on it. We will continue to meter all consumers and from January 2004, the consumers will have to pay for power. The current waiver is another issue,” he said.

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