India's opposition digs for support with onion politics

The Aam Aadmi Party selling onions in New Delhi on Sunday. It hopes to garner support by selling the staple vegetable at cost, since onion prices have risen this year due to bad weather in growing areas.

NEW DELHI - Onions are bringing tears to the eyes of the ruling Congress in India's capital city.

The humble vegetable has a formidable reputation for bringing down governments, and opposition parties have cooked up a scheme to use it to their advantage with elections expected in November.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will start selling onions at 40 rupees (80 Singapore cents) per kg, half the market price, across the city in mobile vans today. Yesterday it sold a limited amount for only 25 rupees per kg.

"We will sell onions at all the 70 assembly segments from Wednesday," said BJP state president Vijay Goel, who led a protest march clutching onions. "We are doing this because the Delhi government is not doing anything to bring down the rate of onion."

On Sunday, the new Aam Aadmi, or Common Man Party, headed into its first elections by selling 25,000kg of onions at 40 rupees per kg. "We are buying from the mandi (wholesale market) and selling it at cost to the common man," said Aam Aadmi spokesman Aswathi Muralidharan. "If we can do that, why can't the government?"

The moves were dismissed as a "poll gimmick" by Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit.

The onion is known as the poor man's vegetable as families who cannot afford other vegetables make do with meals of roti and onions. Indians consume around 15 million tonnes of onions a year.

"The onion is symbolic of price rise and it pinches the pockets of the rich, middle and poorer classes," said Mr Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. When prices shot up to 40 to 50 rupees in the 1998 election year, the BJP government in the state of Delhi met a teary end.

"There is high, immediate anger against the government over the rise of onion prices," said Mr Kumar. "This has worried Sheila Dikshit, who came to power on the back of an onion crisis. She fears that people are not satisfied with prices of several other commodities going up and that this will be the last nail in the coffin."

Onion prices have risen this year because of bad weather in growing areas in Maharashtra and southern India. This has been compounded by traders hoarding onions, said the government.

Mrs Dikshit has promised prices would fall as supply rises, and the government is taking steps such as bringing down prices at state-owned outlets. But that makes little difference to 30-year-old Pushpa Sharma, a cook who ran out of onions for her household two days ago.

"I am putting in more garlic and ginger. I decided not to buy onions till the prices come down," said the mother of two, unaware of its political implications. "The taste is not there, but what can you do?"

For its part, the Congress is hoping for a price drop well ahead of the elections and banking on voters having short memories.

"This onion is making news at this moment. In a couple of weeks, prices will come down and by that time people will forget," said Mr Kumar. "If elections were tomorrow, the Congress would have been in trouble."

But Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli said onions are not Mrs Dikshit's only concern. "Since she has already won three elections in a row as chief minister, voters may have some kind of a mental resistance to electing her again," he said.

On the plus side, though, he noted that there is no credible opponent. "The BJP does not have a leader to match her stature, while the new kids on the block, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party, are still untested in the rough and tumble of electoral politics."

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