Will India vote with its thali?

Soaring food inflation, coupled with stagnant wages and rampant unemployment, could be a game-changer in this election.

Published : May 18, 2024 15:32 IST - 6 MINS READ

Food inflation has been accelerating at more than 8 per cent year-on-year since November 2023. It hits households at every rung of the economic ladder. 

Food inflation has been accelerating at more than 8 per cent year-on-year since November 2023. It hits households at every rung of the economic ladder.  | Photo Credit: BABU / REUTERS

At the halfway mark of India’s elections, food remains a pinch point, for both consumers and producers. Inflation numbers bear the pain out: even as the overall retail inflation rate remained virtually unchanged in April, food inflation surged to a four-month high of 8.7 per cent, where rural consumers bore an even sharper increase of 8.75 per cent. Split some of the elements in that number and the rise is startling. Inflation rates for vegetables remain in double digits for the fifth month running at over 27 per cent, there remains an uptick in pulses, cereals, meat, fish, fruits and even a flattening out of the deflation we had been seeing in edible oil prices.

Crisil presents a monthly “Roti Rice Rate” report and its most recent check found that the cost of preparing a vegetarian thaliat home had jumped 8 per cent in April to Rs.27.4, even more expensive than a non-vegetarian thali. A large part of the jump was because of higher prices for onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. What do prices for these household staples look like?

According to the Central government’s own Agmarknet portal, the average wholesale price of tomatoes in India rose by 62 per cent to Rs.1,512 per 100 kg in April year-on-year. Retail prices of tomatoes have seen an almost similar increase of 61 per cent. Retail prices for potatoes have risen close to 50 per cent and onions are up just under 70 per cent at the wholesale level, while retail prices have risen more than 50 per cent from a year ago.

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The ‘PM’ prefix

After coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expanded the array of India’s welfare programmes, stretching from toilets and piped water to free grain and cooking gas. Numbers indicate his “New Welfarism” approach has seen the government spend close to $400 billion on these schemes, with a clear personal touch. So much so that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto is essentially branded as “Modi Ki Guarantee” wholly circumventing the idea of welfare schemes being funded by government budgets and taxes paid by citizens.

There are at least 20 schemes with “PM” prefixes; PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, PM Awas Yojana, Har Ghar Jal Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, PM Vishvakarma Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Poshan Yojana, and many more. The names have been underlined with images. In February this year, the Food Corporation of India, a statutory body responsible for, among other things, distribution of food bags to priority households and beneficiaries wrote to all its 26 regional offices asking them to float tenders for procuring woven laminated bags with an indicative logo of Modi, in order to distribute food grains under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.

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In the period from January to April this year, the BJP ran a total of 76,800 ads on Google. It spent the maximum amount on a Hindi language image ad promoting the Centre’s Jan Dhan scheme. The Central Bureau of Communication, the government’s nodal agency for advertising, which functions under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has also run ads on Central schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana and Ayushman Bharat.

However, four voting phases later, the ruling party seems to hardly mention its welfare achievements. It has instead doubled down on an anti-Muslim narrative and building strong religious fervour. Has something changed in the public mood on rising food prices and will that translate into political choices for voters?

Feeling the strain

There is a flip side to the simmering resentment on food prices. One of the first combinations to learn in boxing is the 1-2 jab-cross. The fast jab catches your opponent off guard and the right cross takes his or her head off. And that is what has played out for both India’s consumers, and producers.

While households across the country are feeling the strain of rising food prices, the state of affairs for farmers is far worse, and their anger is rising. Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to Nashik in Maharashtra this month, over 50 farmers and opposition members were reportedly detained. They had been planning to stage a protest against the government’s poor decisions on the export prices of onions. Soaring retail prices and fears of a poor harvest saw the government slap a restriction onion exports last year. Interestingly, even as elections were underway, the Centre lifted the ban on onion exports. In its place, a minimum export price (MEP) of $550 per tonne and a 40 per cent duty was imposed on onion exports. Protesting farmers say they are already struggling with fluctuating domestic prices coupled with lower-than-expected yield.

Late last year, images of farmers dumping their tomato crops on the streets were splashed across screens and newspapers.

Late last year, images of farmers dumping their tomato crops on the streets were splashed across screens and newspapers. | Photo Credit: SRIRAM M.A.

A steep export price, high duties, and other costs render the option of exports untenable for many. It bears mentioning that the farming community feels a sense of betrayal across political lines; they believe no one from the BJP, the Congress, or Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena (UBT) has spoken for them. As the largest producer of onions in the country with 22 onion-producing districts, Maharashtra may well vote with onions on its mind.

Similarly, across parts of North India and West Bengal, delayed rains last year and extreme cyclicality in prices for potatoes has meant a much lower yield this year and price uncertainty. Late last year, images of farmers dumping their tomato crops on the streets were splashed across screens and newspapers; an unexpectedly high tomato yield triggered an almost vertical drop in prices from Rs.200 per kg to as low as Rs.3-5 per kg leaving tomato farmers struggling to recover even half of their investment.

Prices and policy decisions seem to have cut both ways, cleaving both India’s consumers and producers.

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Radio static

Food inflation has been accelerating at more than 8 per cent year-on-year since November 2023. It hits households at every rung of the economic ladder. Unlike discretionary choices, like buying a washing machine or investing in a two-wheeler, there are no options for feeding one’s family. A bulk of the inflation experienced by the Indian consumer has come from rising food prices, and addressing that is less about monetary policy decisions and much more about executive action.

In the 1980 general election, sky-high onion prices helped former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dislodge a coalition government. In the 1998 State elections in Delhi, a sharp spike in onion prices led to the fall of the BJP government in the capital. Food inflation is not a new problem. What has changed, however, is the coupling of rising food prices with stagnant wages and rampant unemployment. Over the years, food inflation has been akin to radio static: an ever-present thrum in the background, rising steadily and consistently. Has the hum turned to a sharp and shrill cry for change?

Mitali Mukherjee is Director of the Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. She is a political economy journalist with more than two decades of experience in TV, print and digital journalism. Mitali has co-founded two start-ups that focussed on civil society and financial literacy and her key areas of interest are gender and climate change.

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