Chennai, Apr 19: Literally, the rice issue is keeping the pot boiling in Tamil Nadu politics.
It is election time and the most populist slogan - ''free rice'' - is again at centre-stage, with archrivals ruling AIADMK and opposition DMK vying with one another in making promises to lure voters.
Whichever political party or leader calls for a press conference, the interaction is not complete without raising a question on the grandiose promises made on providing free rice.
The issue dominates campaign meetings of both DMK and AIADMK, with front constituents taking pot shots at each other's announcements.
The DMK first delivered a bolt from the blue with the party saying in its manifesto that it would provide Rs 2 a kg under the Public Distribution System (PDS) to all card holders if voted to power.
The AIADMK and its new-found ally MDMK immediately criticised the announcement, to which DMK chief M Karunanidhi went a step further and said his first signature (if the party wins the polls) would be on the government order announcing PDS rice sale at Rs 2 a kg.
A little thought and people realised that this was not the first time the DMK was using the rice weapon. During the rice scarcity in the sixties, it was a similar promise that catapulted the party to power in 1967 for the first time, unseating the Congress. True, the assurance could not be kept in full, but it had done its job by then.
Circa 2006, it has again emerged the focal issue in the May 8 Assembly polls, with the DMK going all out to recapture power and the AIADMK fighting to retain it.
DMK Founder C N Annadurai's promise of 'Rubaikku moonu padi arisi' (three measures of rice for a rupee), a slogan that touched the hearts of the people and led the party to a win in 1967. After coming to power the DMK could manage only one measure of rice for a rupee due to financial crunch and bureaucractic pressure. Still, some issues never die down and once polls are announced, parties are forced to think of populist slogans again. Almost four decades later, the wheel has come full circle and the DMK started the ball rolling with its promise, in a bid to oust what it called the 'anti-people' and 'autocratic' Jayalalithaa regime.
The DMK-led DPA's constituents like PMK, Congress and Left welcomed it, with even Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram terming it 'feasible'. Mr Chidambaram was reacting to AIADMK declaring the scheme 'not feasible' as the state government was incurring annual subsidy of about Rs 1,500 crore to provide rice at Rs 3.50 a kg.
But the AIADMK seemed left with no option, and Ms Jayalalithaa had to make a matching promise herself. As she filed nominations and started canvassing in her Andipatti constituency, she announced that 10 kg of rice would be provided free through the PDS.
She said a total of 20 kg rice was being given to the people at Rs 3.50 a kg. Of this ten kg would be given free. So, people would get 20 kg of rice for Rs 35. This effectively meant people would pay Rs 1.75 for a kg at what Ms Jayalalithaa promised, 0.25 paise less than that promised by Mr Karunanidhi. Some election arithmetic that!
Even before that, Mr Karunanidhi justified himself, saying in a Rs 30,000 crore budget, additional subsidy of about Rs 500 crore could be given to bring down rice price to Rs 2 a kg in ration shops. The issue is generating more heat than the torrid summer, with Ms Jayalalithaa promise triggering angry reactions. Opposition parties say the announcement stems from her fear of losing the polls.
The scheme is aimed at diverting the people's attention, Mr Karnanidhi says, adding that being the Chief Minister she can take a policy decision only by convening the State Cabinet.
The DMK Chief, who said earlier that Ms Jayalalithaa's ally, the MDMK, had in its manifesto promised rice but later backed off after seeing the Chief Minister's stand, threw another salvo at Mr Vaiko, saying he was now forced to ear humble pie.
PMK founder leader S Ramadoss said Ms Jayalalithaa's promise, made not in the manifesto but in a street corner meeting, was the first victory for their front as it was made due to fear of losing.
Mr Chidambaram asked how Ms Jayalalithaa, who queried the DMK's offer, could make her announcement. ''There is no change in my stand that the scheme is feasible as subsidy component is determined by the state government. There is no need for the Centre to intervene.'' Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) President also assailed her offer, stating it only reflected her fear of losing the elections.
The BJP, which had decided to go it alone in the polls after it could not form an alliance with the DMK or AIADMK, rested with criticising the announcements made by both the parties.
Meanwhile, actor Vijayakanth, a debutant in the poll fray, promised 15 kg free rice to every household if elected to power.
Possible or impossible, feasible or not feasible, genuine or a poll gimmick, the debate goes on. Not only in chamber of intellectuals but in the hutments and tenements. Will the 1967 magic work again for the DMK and catapult it to power. Will the AIADMK's promise help retain power ? The answer will be known only on May 11.