Does Pawar know his onions?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly thinks Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is his best minister. But many of his party men are not so easily convinced.

One Congress veteran has a power point presentation from the time Pawar became agriculture minister to show how every statement of his works as a code for his crony capitalist friends – traders then accordingly hoard or sell and prices go up and down in unerring fashion.

I am told the Prime Minister would not entertain this Congressman but I am beginning to wonder if this Doubting Thomas is not right after all. Pawar’s recent statement to let onion prices rise as much as they do for they ultimately benefit the poor farmer is as bizarre as his earlier statements – that prices of wheat were rising because south and north east Indians were beginning to eat more chappatis, that even mother’s milk is adulterated, etc.

He gets away with them because none of us bother to check out the basic realities of the situation. Pawar could be right about farmers benefiting from rising food prices but that almost never happens in practical terms.

If farmers were to really benefit, then we would have to eliminate the middlemen and in this instance it is the onion traders rather than the farmers who have been making a neat profit for the past several weeks – farmers are still disposing off their stock at distress prices and consumers are paying more than three times they would have under normal circumstances.

Recently at a private meeting, one of Pawar’s closest supporters told some reporters that Pawar had never wanted the big four portfolios in the UPA – home, defence, finance and external affairs for “you can do nothing with these portfolios to benefit the people.”

By that, I am sure, he meant that except perhaps for defence no ministry could have been milked to full benefit but defence would never have been handed to an ally anyway. I am also told that Rahul Gandhi considers that the NCP completely destroyed the civil aviation sector and particularly Air India by once again benefitting their own friends and safeguarding their personal interests in that direction.

He had begun to suspect that Pawar was up to no good either. That’s why the agriculture ministry was bifurcated and the department of food handed over to a Congressman who would act as a check and balance between Pawar’s shenanigans and the Congress’s own interests.

What Gandhi may not know is that the agriculture ministry has the maximum number of corporations attached to it and they all generate trader interest – no wonder prices of food commodities produced in Maharashtra in large measure – like onions and sugar for example – have been steadily rising and falling and then rising again over the past decade.

It is galling to Pawar that he is given less importance by the UPA than he thinks is his due as one of the closest allies of the Congress. But what his supporters fail to mention is that Pawar really has no alternative but to be friends with the Congress for he will be decimated without support from Sonia Gandhi.

Nevertheless there are ample Congressmen in Maharashtra, including chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who are not allowing the Maratha strongman to get away with every nonsense – which is why perhaps Pawar accused Chavan of paralysis – he can’t lift his fingers to sign files for that reason he said. But apart from not clearing projects in which the Pawars have vested interests Chavan has also been adamant about not allowing the NCP more seats than their due in the Lok Sabha elections and is hell bent upon reducing the NCP share from 22 out of 45 to just 18.

If that comes through, Pawar’s dream of becoming the Prime Minister in the event of a hung parliament and the subsequent inevitability of a third front government, recedes further. For every other ally can be expected to come to the table with at least 15 seats. Who then would support a man with only three or four members of Parliament?

I believe that this is then Pawar’s way of getting his back on the Congress – not having forgotten that onions caused the downfall of the BJP in four state elections in 1998, he is hoping the Congress meets the same fate. But there is a difference – he is beginning to realise the excitement among the poor and the deprived over the food security bill in both urban and rural areas is genuine, never mind what some economists and the privileged classes might be saying.

So from a reluctant bridegroom who had wanted the UPA to defer the FSB, he is now beginning to laud the scheme to gain a measure of ownership as the agriculture minister under whose watch a lot of poor were rendered less hungry. I wonder where now his concern about farmers being diddled out of their due in this kind of food procurement has gone – perhaps he always knew that the government would not be able to rob Peter to pay Paul and so they are in little danger of the scheme boomeranging.

I am then unable to understand whose side Pawar is on, except for his own and that of his trader friends. Meanwhile, those who crib the loudest over the rising prices of onions, I notice, are those who head first for the exotic vegetables sections in the food malls, But Pawar should remember that the poor goes to bed on just half a roti and one piece of raw onion.

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