The Bharatiya Janata Party is so engrossed in navel-gazing that it is missing out on a rare opportunity. Only 15 years ago it was shaken by a sudden shortfall in the onion crop. Within months the prices rose from a normal Rs 6 a kilogram to 10 times as much. Truck drivers of Punjab suddenly found the succulent little pickled onions missing from their lunch. The common housewife could no longer afford the traditional seasoning that made meals palatable; garlic, though plentiful, was not a substitute. Voices were raised in Parliament. The then prime minister, A.B. Vajpayee, who had enough on his plate trying to deal with strident global reactions to his nuclear ceremony, wished onions would get off his menu of worries. Members of his cabinet were clueless; only his external affairs minister ventured to suggest that some onions may be obtained from Iran. A plane was requisitioned, a joint secretary installed therein, and both were dispatched to Iran. Its president was kind enough to allow a planeload of onions to leave the republic. They enabled the prime ministerís chef to continue serving his famous meals, but the woes of the man on the street were not diminished. Onions could not be produced from the air, but books on them could be; at least one economist did well out of the onion famine without owning a single onion.
Those times are here again. Onion prices in Calcutta have more than doubled since a year ago. Calcuttans are lucky; in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where onions come from, prices have quintupled. The rise has come at an opportune time for the beleaguered Nitin Gadkari, who has lost no time in attacking the government. The prime minister has hesitated to step into the fray; Sharad Pawar, the minister of agriculture who was fielded instead, has promised to bring down prices in two or three weeks. No doubt he reckons that some other crisis will come along soon enough and onions will be forgotten; but then, he was always an optimist.
The government has banned onion exports, and tried to import them from Pakistan. Here is a chance for Indiaís western neighbour to change its image in this country from a militant state to a redolent one; it remains to be seen whether it takes up the challenge. It could open the gates and flood India with succulent onions. It could send a planeload accompanied by its radiant foreign minister. It could send a shipload free to its hostile neighbour, Narendra Modi. Unfortunately, it is not very good at taking economic chances. If it had had economic sense, it could by now have made billions by transporting Indian goods from Wagah border to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and further north. It still can; it just once has to discover the profits of peace.