Onions as a political weapon
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.