Food — finding it, getting it, cooking it, eating it and digesting it has been a source of as much thought, ingenuity, memory, delight and above all and pervading every experience, it has been a matter of anxiety. Quite apart from its capacity to fuel war and violence, there is a vast history of how food has been manipulated to serve the purposes of people aspiring to gain power and, equally, those determined to hold on to power.
The governing class has to react to a food crisis. The one thing it cannot do is retreat into silence or remain unresponsive to the problem, even if it will resolve itself in several weeks. The discontent that the unavailability of food builds up has been tested over time, across the world, from ancient times to the latest round of elections in Maharashtra and, tangentially, in Haryana.
Onions may not be a “staple”, at less than one per cent of India’s total food production, or about 800 grams a month per person per month on average, but the bulb is not inessential. The Indian palate loves it. When onion prices soar or they crash, consumers and producers react. It is just one of those things; it produces a sentiment. Political parties are wary of it; it helped Indira Gandhi stage her remarkable comeback in 1980; it dislodged the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi in 1998; it confirmed Arvind Kejriwal as a leader of the aam aadmi in 2015.
Earlier generations of politicians were scared of crop failures affecting rice or wheat production; they were deeply involved in making ends meet, because there were serious shortages. That generation had to eat humble pie and accept shipments of imported bulgur wheat to get over a crisis. That generation responded by bringing on the Green Revolution. And then the Milk Revolution and then the Egg/Chicken Revolution. Rice eaters became roti eaters; not fully, but in part.
The old-fashioned, down to earth politicians of the present generation are wary about the sentiments of food; prices, availability and quality. Because there is a long list of politically explosive farm products, starting with pulses, cooking oil, onions, potatoes, sugar, chicken, eggs, fish and including parboiled rice. Canny politicians stick to managing these complexities. The peasant is not just the backbone of the Indian economy — creating demand when she/he has money in her bag — but also of politics, comprising the majority of voters in India.
Food is not just about what Hindus can or should eat and when they should eat what they eat. It is about credit policy. It is about the prices of inputs. It is about the cost of production and the minimum prices at which these foods ought to be sold and the returns on the investment for the farmer. It is about suicides and loans. There is so much that needs to be carefully managed in the food that is bought and sold that generations of the Indian ruling class have learnt to handle it as a priority. The BJP, unfortunately, has not.
Ambitious to produce electorally positive outcomes, the party has added to the list of foods that produce sentiments. The cow is the best such example. It holiness and status in the Indian mind was never in question. The exclusive claims of the Hindu to be a devotee of the cow was also beyond dispute. But by triggering popular “sentiments” around the consumption of cow meat, the BJP escalated the politics of food to an entirely new level. It separated the consumers of beef from the consumers of chicken.
The paradigm shift in food politics produced by the BJP vis-a-vis the food politics of Indira Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and Pinarayi Vijayan is this — other foods are consumed by everyone, irrespective of religion, sentiment, caste or ethnicity. The cow is not. Being vegetarian was a matter of culture and preference at one time; it has become a pawn in politics now.
The reaction of the ruling establishment, albeit in suspension in Maharashtra, to the soaring prices of onions that everyone consumes is staggeringly different from the reaction of the ruling set-up to the consumption of beef. By investing so heavily in converting cattle, milch as well as farm cattle, into a trope for its politics of identity, the BJP has to respond with more than silence to the rising prices of food in general and onion, in particular.
Having upped the stakes in food as politics, the BJP has inadvertently made it harder for itself to allow the market to solve the problem of not-so-very-good onions that cost the consumer Rs 100 a kilo.
Food is a difficult matter. It is not just an everyday business. After abandoning its plans of government formation in Maharashtra, the BJP cannot heave a sigh of relief that the onion crisis is no longer its problem. The market for onions is everywhere. The biggest producers are in Maharashtra. So, between the supply of onions and the demand, the problem will not be easily resolved.
The transformation of food into an altogether different kind of politics by the BJP is the challenge it has to deal with. It cannot duck the issue. Instead, the onion crisis has now reached a flashpoint. Small but many protests have erupted across the Indian landscape. These are demands for an effective intervention by the government, that has not been formed in Maharashtra, as well as the government that seems to have buried itself out of sight in New Delhi.
Waiting for the new onion crop to come in, which it inevitably will, be it a smaller harvest or a bumper, is not the solution to the onion crisis. Nashik is fuming as is the lady who went shopping for onions in the morning.
Demonetisation could be sold as a temporary pain that would benefit everyone, especially the poor, in the long run. GST could be packaged as a temporary hiccup. But onions, even if it is a temporary hiccup, cannot be ignored. It makes eyes tear up. And that is not how people like to think about the bulb....