Onions as a po­lit­i­cal weapon

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Neeta Lal

They're at it again. Mak­ing the In­dian govern­ment shed tears, that is. With their well-doc­u­mented propen­sity to bring down gov­ern­ments, or at least blight the elec­toral prospects of many a po­lit­i­cal party, this bul­bous, odor­if­er­ous, lachry­ma­tion-in­duc­ing, thio­sul­fi­nate-rich veg­etable has played an ex­plo­sive role in In­dian pol­i­tics.

One would imag­ine that the rul­ing Congress-led United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance (UPA) govern­ment would be bask­ing in the warm after­glow of vis­its by global A-lis­ters. Err, not ex­actly. In­stead, it is jit­tery about onion prices, which have soared from Rs 20 last month to Rs 90 (about $2) this month, with a fur­ther rise pre­dicted to Rs 100 around New Year's.

In­dia con­sumes an av­er­age 40 lakh tonnes of onions in a year. It is the sec­ond largest onion pro­ducer in the world af­ter China. But pricey onions have been a po­lit­i­cal hot potato for politi­cians of all stripes in In­dia for decades. In the early eight­ies, north-bound onion prices led to the ouster of the right-wing Janata Party. The then Op­po­si­tion leader Indira Gandhi cap­i­talised on this devel­op­ment and stormed back to power. Rid­ing the great "onion wave" - as it was then dubbed - the spunky Gandhi landed straight into the PM's chair.

In 1998, Sushma Swaraj - the cur­rent leader of the Op­po­si­tion and then Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment - ate hum­ble pie when she lost power in Delhi as onion prices sky­rock­eted by 600 per cent. Sim­i­larly, in 2008, as PM Man­mo­han Singh locked horns with the Left over the nu­clear deal with the US, a run on onion prices checked him from call­ing a snap elec­tion.

Even last year, the Lok Sabha, the 552-mem­ber di­rectly elected Lower House of Par­lia­ment, had to be ad­journed on De­cem­ber 17 af­ter the op­po­si­tion and rul­ing coali­tion politi­cians came to blows over food in­fla­tion climb­ing at nearly 20 per cent, the high­est among de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

In other words, the UPA could well join the onion back­lash list if it ig­nores the clout the pun­gent veg­gie wields in In­dian pol­i­tics. Per­haps the ul­ti­mate mea­sure of the scarcity and value at­tached to onions in In­dia these days was a dar­ing rob­bery in a Delhi colony in which the thieves hauled away a 5-kg bag of onions as a part of their booty! In­ter­est­ingly, it was Pak­istan, which bailed In­dia out in 2005 out of its onion cri­sis by send­ing a train­load of 30 tons of onions. Over­all, it dis­patched over 2,000 tons of the veg­etable that year which was sold at sub­sidised rates in the re­tail mar­ket. This time again, per­haps as a part of its 'onion diplo­macy', 13 truck­loads of the veg­gie have ar­rived from Pak­istan through the At­tari-Wa­gah border in Pun­jab.

Un­doubt­edly, onions are an es­sen­tial sta­ple for the In­dian poor who con­sti­tute the biggest seg­ment of so­ci­ety and wield enor­mous po­lit­i­cal clout. Al­though the econ­omy has en­joyed a sus­tained seven per cent plus an­nual eco­nomic growth, even dur­ing the fi­nan­cial melt­down, more than 250 mil­lion peo­ple in the coun­try still sub­sist on less than $1 a day. For this de­mo­graphic - which has to strug­gle for two square meals a day - it is not the "eco­nomic growth" which mat­ters but the price sta­bil­ity of es­sen­tial com­modi­ties like wheat, ed­i­ble oil, pulses, sugar, milk and veg­eta­bles.

Suss­ing out a po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity in the pro­hib­i­tively priced onions, the Op­po­si­tion par­ties are al­ready at it - try­ing to cap­i­talise on the UPA's mis­ery and hold­ing na­tion­wide demon­stra­tions, that is.

Who needs weapons of mass de­struc­tion (WMD), when you have onions, is ap­par­ently the Op­po­si­tion's be­lief! The govern­ment had bet­ter watch out lest the move­ment snow­ball into some­thing cat­a­strophic.

But what is the rea­son for this year's sud­den onion scarcity? Ex­perts say surg­ing de­mand - due to a grow­ing mid­dle-class earn­ing higher in­comes in the ex­po­nen­tially grow­ing ser­vices sec­tor - com­bined with sup­ply­side con­straints caused by in­fra­struc­ture bot­tle­necks like trans­port, roads and stor­age - have re­sulted in an un­prece­dented food in­fla­tion.

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