PROTECTION REQUIRED: As tomato prices skyrocket, fact has become stranger than fiction and tomato heists have become a reality. Stock worth `70,000 was stolen in Mumbai. Wholesalers at the Indore vegetable market are taking no chance. The costly vegetable is now being sold under the eyes of armed guards

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power with Narendra Modi at the helm riding on a wave of promises. Promises to end black money, find Dawood Ibrahim, end corruption, etc. Women were targeted with an utopian fantasy of low-priced, high-quality food. However, reality seems to be opening their eyes. What the consequences will be for the fairy-tale-writing government is anyone’s guess

By Ali Peter John

HOW the times and seasons change! It was early 2014 and the election fever was on and the different parties were busy selling dreams and promises to the people, especially to the women of every constituency in Mumbai. I had lost interest in everything to do with politics and politicians the evening I heard my professor of Hindi, Prof Ramnath Pandey, who was also the Chairman of the Board of Studies of the Bombay University, who was contesting the elections to the Maharashtra Assembly for the first time.

He had finished a day-long campaign and was fuming and fretting because of the way he had lost face against his Communist opponent when he had made a long speech on the need to save the Ganga, and the Communist leader, Mr. B. S Dhume, cut him down to size in his very opening line when he said, “Maine sunna tha ki yeh sahib professor hai, aaj mujhe yakeen huwa ki yeh sachmuch professor hai. Hum yaha gutter ke aur paani ke samasyao se tang hai aur yeh professor sahab Ganga ko baachane ki baat kar rahe hai.”

He was sitting with me in his air-conditioned cabin and the black telephone (there were no mobiles those days) on his table rang and he barked into it like the late Hindi film villain Ajit spoke in all his films. He was speaking to the inspector in charge of the Andheri Police station and said, “uski aisi haalat kardo maar maarke ki woh election khatam hone tak ghar ya hospital se baahar nahi nikal sake”.

He was passing orders to the police to beat up one of his arch rivals till he became physically useless and I was listening to my professor who taught me the lessons imparted by the Hindi novelist Premchand and the saint Kabir and the poems of Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan (who was still to be known as the father of the superstar Amitabh Bachchan). That was the very evening I bid farewell to active politics forever or that is what I thought…

Things were going from worse to worse with every political party and politician making lofty promises only to break them once they came to power, whatever the party and whoever the party leader. It was this time, in early 2014 that my urge to take interest in politics surged again, mostly because of Narendra Modi who was the chief minister of Gujarat during the most horrifying riots in the state and especially during the Godhra carnage being chosen by the BJP over all his seniors to be its prime ministerial candidate and his friend during the Gujarat days, Amit Shah being elected as the president of the BJP.

There was not much of a fight seen in the initial stages, but the flamboyant and almost arrogant speeches of both Modi and Shah brought heat into the contest as they kept levelling charges against the Congress and especially the Gandhi family. What gave them an edge was the big promises that they made to mostly the small Indian, also known as the common man or the middle classes.

The one subject on which they kept hammering was the age-old problem of roti, kapda aur makaan which the Congress had also used for several years, but they expressed their opinions on the subject in their own ways and in a language that was vituperative and even abusive. The common man was clearly carried away by their highly inflammatory speeches and their promises made by thumping their strong and broad chests. The prime ministerial candidate, the president of the BJP and all the candidates contesting on the BJP ticket had the same promises to make — bring back all the black money stacked in the Swiss Bank and other banks and bringing back Dawood Ibrahim and other enemies of the country who were hiding in different parts of the world. This kind of rhetoric went down very well with the men of India…

These clever and even conning leaders knew that women formed quite a big chunk of the voters and again all the senior leaders, down to the leaders in Ghaziabad and Ahmedabad to the various suburbs of Mumbai, made the same heady promises to women. The prime minister hopeful flung both his hands in the air and raised his powerful voice to the skies as he addressed his “behno” (sisters) and told them and then promised them that the best days of their lives would begin the day the BJP came to power. Women were swept away by the speeches and promises and believed that the achche din were at hand for them and they according to a major survey voted almost en masse for the BJP because its leaders promised them vegetables, daals and every kind of food for their families at prices they could never imagine.

The man with the most powerful voice and fifty-six inch chest was so poetic in his speeches about prices of vegetables that he said, “aap logo ko har woh cheez jo aapke aur aapke gharo ke liye zaroori hai woh itne saste daamo mein milenge ki aap khushi se hairaan ho jayenge!” (You will get all those things that you and your families will need at such cheap prices that you will find it difficult to believe and you will be surprised at how you will get what you couldn’t get during all these years when the corrupt Congress party ruled.)

It is the year 2017 now and I decided to talk to women of different classes, women who were presidents and secretaries of housing societies and women walking with bags in their hands from market to market and asked them about what they felt about the prices of vegetables after the BJP had taken over after making all the tall promises to bring down the prices to unbelievably low levels. I was completely taken aback by the angry reactions of the same women who had voted for the party in the hope of having a better life but had been taken for a ride. They were tense and felt threatened by the future with the fluctuating prices of vegetables and daals in markets, in supermarkets and in ordinary bazaars and grocery shops.

I followed them from one market to another and wherever vegetables were being sold and their reactions literally scared me and I wondered what would happen if the prices of these essential commodities kept rising the way they were. I without reading any political meanings into this kind of a crisis, was forced to wonder whether they would have any impact on the elections to the Lok Sabha in 2019 for which the ruling party and the opposition are already making preparations on all fronts.

Mrs Sushila Bangera, who is a working woman and also the chairperson of the Kripa Housing Society in the suburb of Andheri, besides being what she calls “a responsible home keeper” was losing her breath when she talked to me about the prices of different vegetables.

Said Mrs Bangera, “my father always told me never to believe in the promises made by politicians, but I decided to give this party a chance as I saw it as a new party which would care for the needs of the people who really matter and that is the class to which many of us women belong to. During the time they came begging and promising to change our lives, they first told us how they were going to bring down the prices of vegetables and all that a family needs to live a comfortable life. But, tell me, is the way the prices of ordinary vegetables like tomatoes and green chilies shooting up every day the right way to keep the promises they made? How can they raise the prices of every kind of daal, especially toor daal which are so very essential for every family? How can tomatoes be sold at `180 a kilo? Doesn’t it mean that one tomato is sold for `10 to `18? Have tomatoes suddenly turned to gold, and how can green chilies be sold for `200 to `250? Don’t they remember their promises made to us women when they needed our votes, don’t they have a conscience when they decide to increase the prices of our everyday needs?

These days, I know there are many women like me who are scared of going to the markets because we don’t know when the prices will shoot up. If I, as a working woman who has a husband with a good job, can feel the pinch so severely, then what must be the condition of women who have to manage their families according to the whims and fancies of people who care two hoots for our welfare? They have had their say and they have had their ways. Let them come to us the next time and I hope all of us women who have been their victims will know how to give them a befitting answer which will make them cry like a child cries when a green chilly is brought close to its eyes.”

Mrs Nikhat Kashmiri belongs to a middle class family and she has been taking care of her family before she got married and even now when she is married and is a mother of a growing up son and lives with her husband and her mother-in-law. She looks bewildered when she talks about how difficult it is to look after the needs of a family which has to live up to “certain standards set by society for the kind of families we live in”. Mrs Kashmiri who has been doing all the marketing for the family is shocked by the rising prices of vegetables and daals which she says are the basic necessities of a rich, middle class or a poor family. In an angry tone she says, “how can one pay `180 for a kilo of tomatoes? And I am not mentioning the prices of every other thing in the market. Don’t these leaders who made all those promises of bringing down the prices of food items realize that we too are thinking people and we know how our minds work when we shell out every rupee for things which we once bought at a much more cheaper price? We are a secular family and have no problems with eating vegetarian or non-vegetarian food. We largely shifted to vegetables because of the low prices and keeping in mind our health issues. But we have now realized that it is easier to buy and relish non-veg food than paying such royal prices for the most ordinary veg items like even green chilies. We, the middle class are caught in a web on all sides. The prices of cooking cylinders have doubled up in the last one year and so have the prices of the men who bring these cylinders to our homes. I have only one son, but even giving this one son a good education has become such a major financial problem. The school keeps making new demands every month and then there are tuitions and so many other things needed to bring up our son according to the standards of the society we live in. Every government comes up with a whole lot of promises which they normally never keep, but I expected something better from this government which people like us put all our trust in and I hate to think of how they have betrayed and cheated us after they have got our votes. Lekin apne bhi din aayenge, humne ek baar galti ki hai, dusri baar kabhi nahi karenge.

Mr Surendra Jaswal runs a tiffin service and openly admits that he is a great follower of Mr Modi but just being his follower is not helping him in his business. He says he has to buy vegetables from the market in Dadar and store them and has to sometimes feed his customers with stale vegetables because “I cannot run my business by buying vegetables at the prices they are sold. There have been many complaints about the quality of food I have been serving and I can’t help it and frankly tell them that if they wanted better quality food, they would have to pay heavy prices and they have their own problems and believe it or not I have lost several customers and when I need them sometimes and ask them how they manage their lunch and dinner, they say they have learned to live on vadapaav and other such unhealthy items on which lakhs of people in Mumbai depend on. I am still a follower of the BJP, but I think that it is slowly losing ground and they will slip further if they don’t keep in mind the needs of the common man and the middle classes. Paise walo ko koi cheezki kami nahi lagti, lagti hai toh hamaare aur tumaare jaise aam admiko. Yeh sarkaar kab samjegi yeh choti si baat jo bahot badi baat hai.

The farmers in Maharashtra and other places have formed a new plan of coming down to Mumbai to set up their own business, selling vegetables fresh from their fields and farms at half the prices they are sold by dealers in Mumbai, but they are being faced with tough opposition from the local dealers.

And as the prices of vegetables goes up, the prices of mutton, chicken and even beef which is openly being sold in the open in some of the far away suburbs, but the prices can only be afforded by those who have the kind of money which can only be black money or money earned by any other means but the right ways of making a living. Like Mrs Jane Swamy says, “there was a time when we had non-veg food at least thrice a week and beef was something we couldn’t live without. But now all that has changed. We cannot afford to buy mutton for `500 a kilo and chicken for `250 a kilo and beef has become like some kind of an abuse or a threat to life. We are now forced to make vegetarian food a habit, but with the rising prices we can’t even afford that. I am 70 years old now and I have never heard of any government controlling or even threatening the food habits of its people. Such a sad state of affairs this once great country of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru has been reduced to by leaders who are not fit to be the leaders of this country people all over the world once looked up to”.

I would not be shocked or surprised if the next elections are fought on the basis of food and tomatoes and chilies are used as the symbols of different new parties which will give the existing parties a run for their money and their breakfasts, lunch and dinner.

(Mumbai-based Ali Peter John is a veteran film journalist who worked for Screen, the film weekly of the Indian Express Group, for over 40 years, and has seen the highs and lows of tinsel town.)

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