Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Onions bring tears to eyes of India's nationalist party


India's ruling Hindu nationalists are in despair as the prices of onions, which five years ago cost them Delhi city state, are holding in markets ahead of city assembly polls tomorrow.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled the state until the soaring prices of onions, the tangiest ingredients in Indian curry, saw its ouster from office in the last poll in 1998.

The BJP is now trying to snatch New Delhi back from the Congress, which is in opposition at the national level, but the party does not want its rivals to forget their past failings.

"The BJP suffered in 1998 because it sided with hoarders and thus prices of vegetables, specially onions, went through the roof and voters kicked them out of power," senior Congress leader Rajendra Kumar Sharma said.

"And now if we compare the costs, today we are selling vegetables at a cheaper rate than they cost in 1998," said Sharma, also chairman of Delhi's Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee, the world's largest vegetable and fruit market in terms of arrival of produce.

The BJP's electoral woes started when onion prices mysteriously jumped to 80 rupees (US$1.8) a kilogram from five rupees five years ago in the run-up to the last election.

The situation was so bad that police even reported burglars breaking into homes to steal the tangy vegetable.

Today the root costs 10 rupees (US$0.23) a kilogram, a price consumers say they can stomach as it is in harmony with inflation.

The BJP is dismayed that the Congress is trying to revive the matter ahead of the Dec. 1 polls, also being held in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

"Last time the Congress blamed us for kicking up the prices of onions and it became the only issue. Tell me how many onions can you eat in a day?" asked Mahendra Nagpal, general secretary of the BJP's youth chapter.

BJP's chief ministerial candidate Madan Lal Khurana tried yet another strategy to keep onions off the table.

Brandishing a photograph of the alleged rapist of an eight-year-old girl, Khurana said the suspect was an ally of several Congress party candidates.

"We will not shift our focus from this issue," he said, adding there had been "no talk on food prices" at party rallies.

Mewaram Arya, the city spokesman of the BJP, tried to put the matter in a wider context.

"New Delhi is not a grower city and depends on neighboring states so this government cannot claim credit for controlling prices or blame our government for failing to hold down the rates," Arya said.

"Only God and nature can be blamed or praised ... Maybe that should be our strategy," the spokesman said.

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