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World - Asia/Pacific

Voters teary over onion prices imperil India's ruling party

onion propoganda
Onions have become a political football in the coming Indian elections  
November 20, 1998
Web posted at: 9:55 p.m. EST (0255 GMT)

NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- When voters in four Indian states go to the polls next week, the issue taking center stage will be multilayered and pungent.

For what's angering Indians of late -- and threatening to derail the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party -- is a shortage of onions that has driven up their price 600 percent in three months.

The government blames unseasonable rains for ruining this year's crop. But opposition parties, including the BJP's archrival, the Congress Party, are blaming the government for not importing enough onions in time to make up the expected shortfall.

Shortages and price increases have also hit other foods such as potatoes, tomatoes and green vegetables. Mere rumors of a possible salt shortage triggered panic buying and sent prices soaring.

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CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap reports
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"The common man is really put out a lot, and this creates a general panic which has taken place in India," says Ambika Soni, a Congress spokeswoman.

But BJP officials, who took over the national government eight months ago as the lead party in a coalition, insist they are not to blame for the shortages.

"We have not mismanaged the situation," said Sushma Swaraj, chief minister in Delhi state. "We were given a tottering economy, and this price rise was inevitable. We are working to fix it."

Polls show BJP in trouble in Delhi, Rajasthan

Opinion polls taken ahead of the November 25 state elections show the BJP may lose control of the government in both Delhi and the western state of Rajasthan, two states in the Hindu heartland that the party has governed for the past five years.

However, analysts believe the BJP could take control of the central state of Madhya Pradesh from Congress because of the Indian electorate's predilection for ousting incumbents.

Some observers believe that should the party falter in these state elections, its allies in the national parliament, who account for about 70 crucial votes, could bolt, unseating BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

"If the BJP loses in these elections, it's a possibility that Congress and other parties may try to topple the government," said J.P. Mathur, the BJP's vice president. "I don't rule out the possibility of elections next year."

But other analysts think such a move by Congress would be unlikely because it would then have to preside over an unwieldy coalition government with leftists opposed to economic reform.

New Delhi Bureau Chief Anita Pratap and Reuters contributed to this report.

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