The ubiquitous onion has always been more than a sum of all its parts. It is the most commonly used and the most celebrated of vegetables around the globe. Not the least important, of course, is its value. Value for money, that is. The royal vegetable is so cheaply available that any upward spiral in its price can raise a stink. After all, when the price of onions is headed north, governments can fall. While this year, the prices of all vegetables, pulses and wheat have steadily shot up, the government is a tad more sensitive about the onion’s special status. Not surprising that, given the BJP’s debacle of 1998, when it lost the Delhi elections largely for not knowing its onions — and allowing the bulb’s prices to rise unchecked. It is still unbelievable that at one time in 1998, the price of onion touched Rs 80 a kilo.
The mysterious spike in the bulb’s prices ahead of the elections in 1998 wasn’t so mysterious after all. Peeling through various layers of babudom, the hike was found to be the result of bureaucratic laxity, state apathy and poor policy, with some unforeseen bad weather thrown in for good measure. This made it only too easy for an angry polity to raise a pungent odour and bring tears to the eyes of the NDA government at the time. Keeping their wits about them this time, no politician is letting the problem get their governments into an onion soup. Quickstepping to the rising prices, all measures have apparently been taken, conspiracy theories aside, to not let the bulb trigger tears of farewell.
But at the end of the day, such seemingly unfathomable hikes are a fitting ode to the might of the common vegetable. It was worshipped in ancient Egypt as a symbol of eternity — imagery drawn from the spherical shape and nine concentric layers. In medieval India, onions were an important currency, no less. People would pay rent with onions and even gift them on special occasions. So why pick on the enterprising shopkeeper in a Delhi market for offering a free gift of a kilo of onions on the purchase of two shirts?
But there’s more to the onion than the sulfenide acid that meets the eye. For every time it rears its bulbous head, we know that there’s ineptitude at play and fundamental issues have not been confronted. But then, onions are a bit like politicians, aren’t they? Much ado about everything, and once you peel away the layers, you’re left with nothing.