Veggie Politics
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Veggie Politics

July 29, 2023

Since last month the cost of vegetables, especially in North India, has been spiralling and, as expected, has become an election issue. Veggies are not only good for health but also politics. While tomato is now in the news, the onion is the most politically-nutritious veggie.

One can say that the state of our Union depends on the state of the onion. Yes, the humble vegetable has the distinction of bringing down two Governments — both BJP. Wonder if tomato will ‘ketchup’ by doing the same.

While we ‘catchup’ with tomato puns, onion has long been the most potent political veggie.

In 1980, after Janata Party squandered away an opportunity to give good governance, in the ensuing elections, Indira Gandhi wore a garland of onions, travelled across the nation and asked people how they could trust a Government that was not even competent enough to control the price of an essential vegetable like onion. Her crime of imposing an Emergency was forgiven and she was voted back to power partly on the back of the humble onion.

Again in 1998, as NDA and BJP were riding high after the nuclear tests and preparing to win again with the “India Shining” slogan, the humble onion peeled away at their chances and had them in tears. 

Some may remember the rejuvenated Sonia Gandhi in her “chaste” Hindi saying “hamare behein ghar nahi chala sakthe” (our sisters are unable to run their households) at a rally. She was talking about rising onion prices.

To emphasise her point, a huge onion-shaped helium balloon floated above the crowd. Shining BJP came crashing down.

Governments know that if Indians are NOT shedding tears of joy as they peel their onions, the Government will be shedding tears of defeat. Of course, the Congress, which specialised in ‘onion politics,’ also fell into the trap in 2010 and 2013 but managed to recover.

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It may be recalled that there were reports in the media about how the 2011 onion price hike was contained and immediately fell by 60 percent after Income Tax officials raided several large onion traders. It is evident that cartels operate onion and other vegetable markets too, and failed monsoon is a perfect alibi to rev up the prices of vegetables.

But as much as it is about money, it is also about politics and when it comes to veggie politics — Sharad Pawar is king.

In 2014, a news report by NDTV noted that in India’s biggest onion trading centre at Nashik, Maharashtra, of the 14 onion mandis, 9 were controlled by Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the rest by other                          political parties.

The NDTV reported that the traders got a 4% commission and in 2013, over 40 lakh tonnes of onion were traded there and at Rs. 25 a kilo, it translates to Rs. 10,000 crores! And 4 percent of that is Rs. 400 crores in pure profit! Politicians will always hold onto places that can influence voters and generate easy money, be it Cricket, Real Estate or Vegetable Mandis. And Pawar has his fingers, toes and head in all of them.

To give some credit, the BJP Government did fix a minimum export price and brought back onion into the ‘Essential Commodities Act’, but alas! It may be time for the Government to seriously pursue establishing state-of-the-art warehouses for onions, as India needs around 15 to 20 lakh tonne capacity storage space for onions to avoid shortages.

Usually, when we are hit with onion prices, the Government bans onion exports, lowers import taxes and procures onions from the nearest country…which is Pakistan, whose onions are the preferred choice in India. But must we depend on a hostile neighbour like Pakistan for our essential vegetable?! That, too, a vegetable that has the potential to topple our Government?

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If our Government, be it led by any party, wants to show Pakistan that India is the power centre in the subcontinent, if it wants to see its citizens peeling in tears of joy, it must find a permanent solution to the onion conundrum. Else, we must eat humble pie and say Pakistan bhai-bhai.

At the moment, tomato is enjoying the political spotlight, but its political effects are yet to be felt; meanwhile, some fruits have gotten together!

The formation of a political fruit salad — Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A) — comprising 26 parties who are quite ideologically different from each other and are hoping that the price rise of different vegetables will help them bring down this Government.

Interestingly the leader of I.N.D.I.A is also like a tomato. Many in this political fruit salad want Rahul Gandhi to be their PM candidate,  but like a tomato, he is very confusing. His peers don’t know whether he is young or older; Is he a professional, full-time politician or sporadically hard-working leader? Similarly, the tomato is unsure — is it a fruit or a vegetable? 

I.N.D.I.A members should derive some lesson from the famous tomato adage — “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” So if I.N.D.I.A wants to make a dent in BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign, they should ask themselves, do they want their bowl of political fruit salad to be led by a fruit that tastes like a vegetable? Because if they do, then instead of a juicy fruit salad they may end up with a bland political vegetable salad.

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