Onion politics is back just in time, to haunt politicos

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (PTI Photo)

Call it an o(pi)nionated view. The humble onion, which has shaped and reshaped political destinies umpteen times in past, is back to haunt politicos—this time three months before the national capital Delhi going to polls. Onion prices, which have shot up across the country, could also become an issue in the tribal state of Jharkhand, where a five-phased poll schedule has already been announced and political campaigning is in full swing. 

While Jharkhand is being ruled by the BJP, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is ruling Delhi, a state where shooting up of onion princes had brought an end to the decade-long rule of the BJP and brought Congress back to power in past. The Congress ruled the state for 15 consecutive years till Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP stormed to power in 2013 and then again in 2015.

Whenever the staple kitchen item, which is identified with common man’s food pyaas roti, has gone missing from the food plate, it has cost politicians dearly.

In 2013, the Congress had in fact lost two state governments on onion price issue in Delhi ruled by Sheila Dikshit and Rajasthan ruled by Ashok Gehlot. For Dikshit, who had come to power in 1998 decimating Sushma Swaraj-led BJP on the same issue, it was a déjà vu of a different sort when onion prices soared before the 2013 assembly elections and Aam Aadmi Party capitalised on it along with other issues.

As people saw red with the red bulb going scarce, Delhi threw up a hung assembly. Congress could not recover from that loss. In 2014 polls; AAP won historic 67 of 70 assembly seats.

Earlier when the ticking onion bomb in Delhi had exploded in 1998, its then chief minister Sushma Swaraj had to taste the fury and BJP lost the state polls in a big way despite having done well in Lok Sabha polls in Delhi just months back.

Onion prices are also one of the main reasons why Indira Gandhi who was shunted out of power in 1977 post Emergency, rode back to the throne in 1980 parliamentary elections in which she had famously campaigned wearing onion garlands in public meetings.

The 1980 elections were also named “onion elections” in which Gandhi, condemned for suspending civil rights between 1975 and 1977, formed her campaign theme around rising onion prices and linked it with the issue of overall inflation to browbeat the government of the opposition alliances for failing to control prices. She ended up winning nearly two-third of Lok Sabha seats.

Last year, when the five states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana were going to polls, the BJP had got in a tizzy to keep onion prices under control but the dilemma was that while Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were onion-producing states, where farmers wanted right price for their produce, the demand in Chhattisgarh Mizoram and Telangana, which were onion-consuming states, the demand was to lower the prices.

Onion has found mention not only in domestic politics but also in international bilateral relations and dealings. On October 4 when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in Delhi, she cracked a joke on India's decision to stop onion export after Modi government banned its export on September 29.

"I don’t know why you stopped onion (exports). I told my cook to not to use onion in food. Prior notice of such decisions would help. Suddenly, you stopped and it became a difficulty for us. In future, if you are taking such a decision, prior information would help,” she said in a lighter vein while addressing the India-Bangladesh Business Forum here.

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