Food is a fulcrum in Indian politics

IN SOUTH ASIA the ruling classes ignore the quotidian at their peril. Just ask them about onions. This autumn the humble bulb has challenged titans.

The trouble began when unseasonably heavy rains followed drought across the onion-growing belt of north and central India. That not only all but destroyed the crop; the wet caused more than a third of onions in storage to rot. The result is a severe shortage of onions across India, as a result of which prices more than tripled.

This hardly threatens famine—something the green revolution abolished decades ago by boosting wheat and rice yields. Yet remove the onion and you struggle to imagine Indian cuisine. It forms the base for curries and biryanis. When a poor Indian has nothing else to eat, at least she has an onion with a chapati or two.

The onion crisis has hit both the farmers and urban consumers of north India, the political heartland of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the past, state and even national governments have fallen over onions: Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980 was assisted by an election campaign that equated high onion prices with economic mismanagement. Mr Modi, who faces growing economic problems, is surely aware of the perils. In late September his government slapped a ban...

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