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Delhi Election: How onion prices led to Swaraj govt’s defeat in 1998 — the last time BJP held reigns in national capital

Here’s a tale of how the BJP in Delhi lost the 1998 Assembly election as an incumbent after facing voter anger of the rising onion prices

February 04, 2020 / 04:42 PM IST
File image of Sushma Swaraj (Reuters)
File image of Sushma Swaraj (Reuters)

Assembly elections in the national capital have always been different to those elsewhere. This is because of New Delhi’s largely urban demography.

The 2020 Delhi Legislative Assembly election is not only being fought on issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, but also over air pollution, electricity, education, public transportation and prices of essential commodities.

In the last few months, the price of onion has sky-rocketed due to the shortage in produce following a late and erratic monsoon.

As the prices increased in late 2019, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) used the issue as a fodder to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Centre. AAP alleged that the Centre was not providing onions at a controlled price to Delhi and that a nexus between BJP and onion hoarders was the reason for the sharp increase in prices.

The BJP had hit back, claiming that the AAP government had cancelled an order of four truckloads of daily onion supply to the national capital.


Why were these two parties pointing fingers at each other? This was perhaps because the kitchen staple has the ability to change course of elections, or even dethrone governments. At least that’s what happened in 1998 — the last time BJP held power in the national capital.

The prices of onions were on a rise across the country. But people’s dismay became more apparent during Diwali. Chhagan Bhujbal, who was then with a Congress leader, sent a box of onions to then Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi saying, “Diwali is a festival where you give something precious. This time, onions are very precious.”

Joshi was forced to act and made onions available for Rs 15/kilogram to ration card holders. The onion otherwise were being sold for Rs 45/kg in Mumbai.

An India Today article from 1998 documents what comic Jaspal Bhatti did when the onion price touched Rs 65/kg in Chandigarh. One day, Bhatti arrived at a market along with black-cat commandos suggesting that purchasing a precious commodity like onions warranted such protection.

He also organised an onion-themed fashion show in the main shopping plaza in Chandigarh’s Sector 17. While fashion models walked down the ramp, the comedian reportedly said that "politicians in power may ignore onions but not the onion beauties".

Steadily, the government became the subject of ridicule over high onion prices. With Legislative Assembly election round the corner, it started negatively impacting the BJP government in Delhi more.

While BJP was said to be facing anti-incumbency and with questions being raised about its performance, the soaring onion prices proved to be the last straw for many voters.

As the prospect of losing the Delhi election sunk it, BJP’s leadership panicked. The party swung into action and decided to replace then chief minister Sahib Singh Verma, when it realised that his comment "in any case, poor people do not eat onions" may make matters worse.

With the state BJP unit split in two factions — those of Verma and former CM Madan Lal Khurana — Sushma Swaraj emerged as the consensus candidate.

Swaraj had served as a minister in the Haryana government and was then the Union minister for Information and Broadcasting and Telecommunications. Her stint as the union minister ended when she was asked by the party to take over as the Delhi chief minister.

In what was seen as a rescue mission for her party, Swaraj’s task was cut out. She was to salvage the situation for BJP with less than two months to go for the Assembly polls.

Swaraj’s attempts to set up Fair Price Shops and constant counters to rumours about scarcity of salt and other basic commodities, did not work. She reportedly made a promise of making onions available at Rs 5, which only led to questions over her government’s credibility.

While the saffron party tried to put up a brave face publically, its leaders remained concerned about the depth of public anger. It was said to be so deep that Verma himself did not contest the election.

They may have also been reminded about how Indira Gandhi had benefitted in 1980 because of rising onion prices under Charan Singh’s caretaker government at the Centre.

Congress leader Arvinder Singh Lovely, who was just 29-year-old back then, even coined a campaign jingle: “Bijli, paani, aloo, pyaaz, sapnon mein aate hain aaj. (Power, water, potatoes and onions are available only in our dreams now).”

But, perhaps only the result reflected the real discontent: BJP’s tally fell from what was 49 in 1993 to just 15. Congress capitalised well to win 52 seats against 14 it had clinched in 1993.

Swaraj’s loss was Sheila Dikshit’s gain. Dikshit when on to lead the Congress government in the national capital for three consecutive tenures after that.

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Nachiket Deuskar
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