A few weeks back, I happened to chance upon my mother discussing with the domestic help the list of vegetables that can be prepared for dinner which don’t include onions because they were for more than 50 rupees per kilogram. Then, three armed men hijacked a truck filled with onions on the Delhi-Jaipur highway. A customer shot a simple dhaba owner for giving him his omelette with any onions in it. The following week, a friend related the incident of when she went out for dinner to indulge in Mughlai food. Anyone who is aware of this cuisine knows that one of its high points is the vinegar soaked onions with green chutney; the waiter refused to give her a second helping of those delightful little diamonds because they were now for more than 70 rupees per kilogram. Then, I saw this political cartoon, interestingly titled ‘Onionomics’.
Onions; the staple food of India, is used in every Indian curry and vegetable preparation imaginable. For the poorer, it suffices as a delicious side dish. This small bulbous vegetable is also responsible for bringing down the Central government in 1980 and 1998 due to shortages. This August, onion prices rose by a huge 244.6 percent due to heavy rainfall and severe drought together, forcing the second largest onion producer after China to import onions from Pakistan, Iran and China. With everything that is so terribly wrong with India including but not limited to violence against women, illiteracy, casteism, communalism, political corruption and general upheaval, that purple colored vegetable is what is going to decide the political future of India. We are told that soon-‘soon’ tending to infinity-the prices will drop to as less as 10 rupees per kilogram, but we all know how the scale of Indian Standard Time works.
The political consequences
These prices hit the poor the post; those living under the poverty line of less than $2 a day as defined by the World Bank. If their staple ingredient in a simple yet sufficient meal becomes unaffordable, as it has, they are very likely to show their response at the polling booths. All the political parties in race for the elections see this and are trying their very best to waft the strongest smell of the cheapest onions towards the voters so they come running to them. After all, we’re not more than that to them. So much so, The Telegraph declared it as an ‘Onion War’ between the opposition parties.
With the Delhi elections fast approaching in November, several outlets have been created by the government to sell onions at a cheaper rate of rupees 50 per kilogram; keyword here being cheap. Meanwhile members of the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party put up a stiff competition by setting up stalls all over Delhi and selling onions at prices varying between rupees 30 to 40 per kilogram; this working very strongly in their favor to protest and embarrass the Manmohan Singh government. They call it ‘helping people’, of course.
A few questions
If there are shortages; for whatever reasons too much rain, too little rain, hoarding by some profit-seeking person/organisation/government in the production chain, old agricultural methods and laws; how is the opposition able to procure and sell onions at rupees 30 and 40 per kilogram? Two possibilities come to mind.
One, they obtain it directly from the farmers and make it available at their outlets. Why is the UPA government not able to compete with these prices, then? Two of the many possibilities are that either there are ‘leaky holes’ in these transactions just like all the other ones or they are trying their very best to mollycoddle the retailers, or should I say their votes.
Second, they purchase these stocks from whole sale markets and sell it for zero profit. Such business model or political strategy of buy-somewhere-somehow and sell-zero profit cannot sustain itself logistically. If prices do drop before the elections, then it would have all been in vain. And this act by the opposition says absolutely nothing in their favor as far as political strength of the party is concerned. Also, the Congress selling onions at a relatively, if not much, cheaper price from some outlets does not hide the fact that they are far, far away from mastering the tactics of price-curbing in governance.
The games people play
Having lost once in the 1998 Delhi and Rajasthan elections due to failure to curb increasing prices of the onion, the BJP hopes to cash in on this crisis and use it against the Congress. It even went to the extent of gifting bagfuls of free onions to women on Raksha Bandhan. To say this reek of desperation is much stronger than the smell of onions, will not be an understatement. None of these parties may actually have an economic model to curb these prices and fix the very causes of this increase. What they do know, is how to use any crisis to the best of their advantage; even if it is something as essential as food security of the poor. Who actually cares about them anyway, right? The numbers are all that count for them.
By Pallavi Prasad
Image Source: Mixed Onions