A Battle Royal over Dal Arhar in India’s Parliament

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi speaks of price rise in Lok Sabha on July 28.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi speaks of price rise in Lok Sabha on July 28.

NEW DELHI(TIP): The issue of rising prices came to a boil in Parliament on Thursday, July 28, with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi faulting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the runaway cost of kitchen staples, a charge that prompted finance minister Arun Jaitley to spring to the government’s defense.

Gandhi highlighted spiraling prices of pulses such the popular arhar dal, potato and tomato to tear into Modi’s poll promise of taming food inflation.

“There is a new slogan in villages, arhar Modi, arhar Modi, arhar Modi,” he said in the Lok Sabha, mimicking the BJP’s 2014 poll slogan of “Ghar Modi (Modi in every household)”.

He questioned Modi’s silence on price rise. “You talk about start up India, stand up India, make in India, but not price rise,” he said, mocking at Modi’s signature projects.

Finance minister Jaitley countered the Congress leader’s charge, and reeled out statistics to make his point that the price rise is seasonal.

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“When the new produce arrives, prices go down,” he said, and asked if the Congress-led UPA was any better in checking spiked prices of essentials.

“The UPA government left behind a double-digit inflation. Today, steps have been taken in each sector to contain inflation. Any form of bluster is not a substitute of statistics.”

He also brushed aside Gandhi’s demand that Modi should announce a date by which the prices would come down. “Asking for a date is not the solution. It is about putting in place a policy to fight inflation,” the minister said.

Gandhi too listed out comparative prices of veggies and pulses in 2014 and 2016, saying tomato sold at Rs 18 two years ago, but is selling at Rs 55 now.

“You said you want to be chowkidar (caretaker)of the country. You have become the Prime Minister … a big man now. Under the nose of chowkidar, theft of pulses is taking place … Leave chowkidari to us and the Congress party,” he said, reading out excerpts from Modi’s Lok Sabha poll speeches.

“I want to remind the Prime Minister of the promises he made … He had promised that when the BJP government comes to power, it will bring down prices.”

He recalled Modi’s speech at a 2014 poll rally in Himachal Pradesh, in which the BJP leader criticized the UPA government over price rise. “Ma-bachche raat rote hain, aasoon pee ke sote hain (mother and child cry the whole night and sleep drinking their tears) … What a dialogue,” Gandhi said, in his seventh speech in the 16th Lok Sabha after the 2014 general elections.

Soaring food prices, especially of pulses, veggies and dairy products have fed inflation, driven up mainly by shrinking supplies after two years of back-to-back droughts in top farming states. Pulses such as tur or arhar dal are important sources of protein in India, which has been struggling to increase its output to meet local demand.

With India’s retail inflation moving towards the 6% mark, prices of tomato, sugar and pulses have become talking points for opposition parties, which accused the government of burdening the people with taxes, but not managing inflation.

The Opposition spoke about sugar and tomato, whose price have spiked substantially in the past few months. Sugar prices have gone up by 17%, while tomato has recorded a 100% rise.

Finance minister Jaitley said in case of sugar and onion, the government was worried about farmers not getting their remunerative prices.

“For many months, sugar was at Rs 22-23. We were worried about the farmers. Mills were getting closed. When sugar priced surged to Rs 40, we clamped down on exports,” he said.

“The biggest worry was how farmers will get prices for onions. 20,000 tons of onions had to be bought so that farmers get money. With fresh harvest, tomato prices will come down.”

Explaining the demand-supply gap on pulses, the finance minister said: “If steps to increase pulse production had been taken in the past decade, the situation would not have come to this.”

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