Poll results in Maharashtra’s onion belt reflect farmer fury for BJP

The NDA has lost 12 seats in the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies with the highest concentration of onion farmers

The onion, once again, has proven to be more than just a kitchen staple — it’s a political game-changer.

There is a sense of déjà vu for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha 2024 election results. The BJP has faced significant losses in Maharashtra’s onion-growing belt, reminiscent of past political upheavals tied to rising prices of the crop.

With the exception of one seat, National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has been completely trounced in this crucial agricultural region. Out of the 13 Lok Sabha constituencies where the majority of onion farmers are concentrated, 12 have been won by the opposing INDIA bloc. This is a stark contrast to the 2019 parliamentary elections, where NDA — comprising BJP and formerly united Shiv Sena — won 11 out of these 13 seats, with BJP alone securing seven.

Maharashtra’s major onion growing districts

This electoral outcome harks back to the 1980 general elections when rising onion prices contributed to the return of Indira Gandhi to power and 1989 Delhi assembly elections, where BJP faced defeat for similar reasons. However, this time, the discontent is rooted not in consumer price hikes but in farmer dissatisfaction due to the central government’s decision to extend the ban on onion exports in March.

Since the extension of the export ban, there has been simmering anger among onion cultivators, particularly in major producing and exporting districts like Nashik, which hosts Asia’s largest onion market, Lasalgaon. The export ban led to significant financial losses for farmers, who struggled to recover their cultivation costs as mandi (wholesale market) prices nosedived.

Read more: Upset over onion export ban, this Maharashtra taluka has shut doors to Lok Sabha campaigning

“Onion farmers have taught a lesson to BJP in a big way this time,” said Anil Ghanwat, senior farmer leader of farmers’ union Shetkari Sanghatana. 

The 2024 results show a significant shift in voting patterns. In Dindori, BJP Union Minister Bharati Pravin Pawar, who won the constituency in 2019, lost by over 113,000 votes to Nationalist Congress Party-Sharadchandra Pawar’s (NCP-SP) Bhaskar Murlidhar Bhagre. 

Similarly, in Nashik, formerly united Shiv Sena’s Hemant Godse, who won in 2019, was defeated by over 162,000 votes by a candidate from Shiv Sena-Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray (UBT).

Other major constituencies with significant onion grower populations, such as Dhule, Ahmednagar, Nandurbar, Baramati, Beed, Latur, Maval, Shirur, Solapur, Shirdi and Osmanabad, also saw NDA’s influence wane. In Beed, BJP leader Pankaja Munde lost her family bastion to NCP-SP candidate Bajrang Sonwane by a narrow margin of 6,553 votes.

Of the 13 onion-growing constituencies, five were won by the NCP-SP, four by Indian National Congress (INC) and three by Shiv Sena (UBT). Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde) won one seat in Maval.

“The central government imposed a ban on onion exports and brought down its prices. Due to the direct financial loss, there was a wave of anger among farmers against the central government. The issue was taken very lightly by the Modi government,” said Bharat Dighole, president of the onion growers’ association in the state.

The government has made many anti-farmer decisions, including the onion export ban and we have repeatedly stated that farmers will respond through the ballot box in the Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, the farmer added.

Read more: Extreme weather events, Russia-Ukriane war escalating onion prices globally

The PM has held two roadshows in Nashik, once on January 12, 2024 and again on May 15. Notably, Dighole and his association were allegedly warned by local police both times against protesting during the visit and told to stay home.

Overall, out of 48 parliamentary constituencies in Maharashtra, INC won 14 seats, BJP won 10, SHS-UBT secured 9, SHS and NCP-SP each won 7, NCP won 1 and an independent candidate won the last one. Compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and NDA’s seat count has significantly decreased, with the onion-growing belt being a major contributor to this defeat.

“Onion farmers have played the most important role here. This defeat of BJP is due to farmers, particularly onion farmers, who were angry with Modi and NDA. For example, BJP’s Dhule candidate Bhamre Subhash Ramrao has done good work in the last five years, but the candidates lost due to farmers’ dissatisfaction with the party,” said Ghanwat. 

Ramrao lost by a thin margin of 3,831 votes to INC’s Bachhav Shobha Dinesh. 

Export ban and farmers’ ire

On March 22, 2024, the government extended its ban on onion exports indefinitely — just days before the ban was set to expire on March 31 — primarily to prevent a rise in retail prices.

The government made this decision with the elections in mind, aiming to reduce retail prices for consumers before they vote, Dighole told Down To Earth

The initial ban, imposed on December 8, 2023, was in response to a domestic supply shortage and was intended to ensure that the staple vegetable was available to domestic consumers at reasonable prices. Initially scheduled to last until March 31, onion farmers and traders hoped that the ban would be lifted after that date, as there were reports of a good Rabi harvest and thus no crop shortages.

But the extension of the ban left the growers irate — angry farmers protested against the move, stopped auctions at various onion mandis and even blocked the busy Mumbai-Agra Highway in Nashik district.

Read more: Export bans, restrictions: How government is trying to keep food prices in check ahead of elections

While the government eventually lifted the ban on May 4, as elections approached, it kept the minimum export price at $550 or Rs 45,884 per tonne while levying a 40 per cent export duty. This ate into the farmers’ margins, further fanning their anger. This export duty was later lifted on Karnataka’s rose onion variety, adding to Maharashtra farmers’ dissatisfaction.

As Maharashtra approaches its Assembly elections later this year, the onion issue is likely to remain a major concern for the BJP. Ghanwat, who is also the national president of the Swatantra Bharat Party, noted, “Wherever farmer unions are strong and agriculture is the major source of income, BJP has lost seats, whether in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka or Maharashtra.”

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