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FM’s remarks over onion prices spur protest

Our Bureau New Delhi | Updated on December 05, 2019 Published on December 05, 2019

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

Congress staged an impromptu protest

The political sensitivity of onion prices has come to haunt the ruling BJP with the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman unwittingly lending fervour to the Opposition’s protests with her “I don’t eat onion” remark during a Lok Sabha debate on Wednesday.

In what the Congress later categorised as her “Mary Antoinette moment”, the Finance Minister had said, “I don’t eat a lot of onions and garlic, so don’t worry. I come from a family that doesn’t have much to do with onions.”

Soon enough, the social media was buzzing with spoofs and satire over the remark and it was only a matter of hours before the Congress caught on to the trend. On Thursday morning, the Congress staged an impromptu protest, getting traction with the presence of former Finance Minister P Chidambaram who joined in with typical acerbity, “I thought the Finance Minister said yesterday that she doesn’t eat onions? So what does she eat, avocado?”

Nirmala Sitharaman, whose office had tweeted earlier that the comment had been taken out of context, seemed outraged in the Rajya Sabha over the “allegation” that she had been characterised as “elitist”. “Is Jan Dhan Yojna elitist? Is Ayushman Bharat elitist? Is Ujjawala Yojna elitist? And this is coming from someone who said in 2012, when overall inflation was out of control, that ‘why is the upper middle class making such a big fuss over price rise when they can buy mineral water for ₹15 and ice cream for ₹20?’ These are the people who accuse me of being elitist,” she said in the Rajya Sabha while replying to a debate on Taxation Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

Soaring prices

Onion production in this Kharif season dropped by 26 per cent to 52 lakh tonnes. Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan said has attributed this drop to heavy rains in many onion-growing areas in the country. However, the Opposition has been quick to point out that the drop in production is because the farmers have not been getting a good price for their crop. During a Lok Sabha debate, NCP MP Supriya Sule said, “Onion farmer is a small farmer. If he is not getting the desired price for his crop, he will shift.”

The shortfall in production has put pressure on supply and prices. The bulbs are currently being sold for more than ₹120 a kg in many parts of the country, including the capital. To ease the supply, the government has decided to import 1.2 lakh tonnes of onions from other onion-growing countries including Egypt, Germany, and Turkey. The state-owned MMTC has issued tenders for procuring more than 17,000 tonnes already.

While the Opposition has derided these steps as “too late”, the BJP needs to worry about the political impact of the price of onions, an essential part of staple diet among a majority of Indian. Its various leaders, such as Bihar MP Ashwini Choubey, who asserted on Thursday that he “is a vegetarian and has never eaten onions”, have done little to stem the damage already done by the Finance Minister’s remarks. The price of onions has always been a politically sensitive issue and was largely believed to have caused the BJP’s resounding loss in the Delhi Assembly polls back in 1998.

Published on December 05, 2019
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