At least a dozen times during the last three and a half decades, this country has convulsed with anger over skyrocketing prices of onions, a daily need of even the poorest of the poor, as is happening today when one requires a Rs 100 note to get a kilo of onions. Food prices are so high that vegetables and pulses remain out of reach of even the lower middle class, leave alone the millions compelled to make do with thick rotis of coarse grain rubbed with salt and chillies, and supplemented with a slice of onion. The last, alas, is unaffordable fairly frequently.
Way back in the 1970s, I was to witness a slightly varied version of abject poverty in Vietnam. This was shortly after the Vietnamese had defeated and driven out the mighty US army. There was understandable jubilation, from the Vietnam-China border in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. But there are always other sides to life. I discovered that there were a large number of Vietnamese families that couldn’t afford fish. They consoled themselves by using a wooden spoon shaped like one to stir the boiling rice. Few were able to pour a spoonful or two of fish oil on cooked rice. Things have surely improved in both countries, but the unanswered question is: How much?
Anyway, in India, when I first witnessed loud protests against the unbearable rise in onion prices in late 1970s, I wondered why nothing was heard on this subject some five years earlier, an even worse period for food prices. India had just gone through two wars, in 1962 with China and 1965 with Pakistan, two successions and two terrible droughts. Indira Gandhi had just come to power. We had no foreign exchange to buy food in the world market. Washington was therefore the destination of her first official visit overseas. During his effusive welcome to her, President Lyndon Johnson promised ample wheat under America’s Public Law 480. But, infuriated by India’s criticism of the Vietnam War, he put the food supplies on a tight leash. India literally lived from ship to mouth, and with every morsel of American food, swallowed a little humiliation, too.
Soon thereafter, onion prices started becoming a major issue from time to time. Whoever was in power would express sympathy for the suffering people but never answer a simple question: Since the production of onions could always be foreseen, why did the minions of the Indian state and their political bosses let exports, smuggling and hoarding go on for so long before taking remedial action?
There came a time when a massive rise in the prices of onions and elections in several states coincided. The timing of this development, March 1978, together with the outcome of these polls, could not have been more ironic. For, exactly a year earlier, in the first post-Emergency general elections in 1977, the empress had been overthrown and the Janata party had come to power on a tidal wave of goodwill.
The Janata’s view, as expressed by its foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was that people had “consigned Indira Gandhi into the dustbin of history”. This did not prevent her, however, from leading the Congress campaign against the Janata. She made onion prices the war cry and won in the five states 394 seats as against 288 of the Janata and 127 of the rival Congress. A similar story was repeated in 1998, when Vajpayee was prime minister. This time around, to the issue of onion prices was added the large-scale adulteration of mustard oil, which led to many deaths. The widespread comment then was “Indiraji aisa nahin hone deti (Indiraji would never have allowed this
Now Bihar is on the verge of assembly elections, in which the Modi sarkar has heavy stakes. The prime minister is personally leading the campaign there. But onion prices are not coming down. In addition, Narendra Modi’s condemnation of caste-based politics loses effect because of what Gujarat’s most dominant Patel caste is doing there. In any case, never forget the connection between onions and elections.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator