The national elections in Bangladesh are scheduled to be held in January 2024. The Shiekh Hasina-led Awami League will try to continue its uninterrupted stint in power since 2009. The united opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose top leader, Khaleda Zia, is serving a 17-year jail term since 2018 on corruption charges, is demanding a fair election under a neutral government.
In recent months, opposition rallies and government crackdowns have intensified, resulting in violence and casualties. The US and many Western countries have strong reservations about the human rights records of the Sheikh Hasina regime, and they don’t seem to buy the opinion that the upcoming elections will be free and fair. However, Bangladesh’s neighbouring powers, such as India and China, seem to be comfortable with the Sheikh Hasina government. A marriage of convenience!
This makes it difficult for anyone in the region outside Bangladesh to have a clear opinion about the upcoming elections – whether it will be fair or rigged or whether Khaleda Zia should be given amnesty and allowed to lead the opposition in the upcoming election to give the outcome a dash of legitimacy.
Bangladesh elections are likely to be impacted by a factor more lowly but significantly high on people’s everyday priorities. In recent weeks, the prices of onions and potatoes have reached new highs. While onions sell for Tk 140 ($1.10) a kg, potatoes have touched Tk 65-70 ($0.60) per kg. The rise in onion prices is attributed to India increasing the Minimum Export Price of onion to $800 per tonne on October 28, after the wholesale prices in India jumped 60% in a fortnight.
The potato prices going exorbitantly high has no clear explanation. In March this year, the Bangladesh agriculture ministry announced that the country produced 11 million tonnes of potatoes, over 2 million more than the last year. Bangladesh has been a potato exporter, so there was nothing unusual about the high productions. However, the prices started heating up once the potato harvest was transferred from farmers’ possession to the traders.
A study conducted by the Bangladesh commerce ministry in October, whose findings were made public on November 5, says that a syndicate of cold storage have created an artificial scarcity of potatoes. It said the cold storages had manipulated the stocks by using slips and cards given to farmers/traders when they stock their produce in the cold storages. But cold storage owners don’t accept the commerce ministry’s claim. They say the potatoes stored in cold storage constitute a minuscule part of the total production. Further, they blame the government for the current scarcity, claiming that data about potato production was inaccurate.
Whatever the reason for the rising prices, coming barely two months before the elections, the high prices of onions and potatoes are proving to be a real headache for the government.
Acting swiftly, the Bangladesh government allowed imports of potatoes, a first for Bangladesh. India’s West Bengal, where farmers are facing a glut and low potato prices, found this a god-sent opportunity. They must exhaust their old stocks quickly before they can start with the November potato sowing season. So far, West Bengal farmers have sent two tranches of potato supplies to Bangladesh, a total of over 1,000 tonnes.
While the arrival of Indian potatoes has cooled the prices in Bangladesh, reports suggest that the effects are limited to border areas only. Deep in Bangladesh, including Dhaka and Chittagong, potatoes are still selling for Tk 70 a kg. In the Indian subcontinent, people are susceptible to prices of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – in the same order. There can be two minds about whether the government is fair or corrupt, whether its forces are violating humans or upholding them, or if the government’s handling of the economy is deft or directionless. But there can’t be any ambiguity on the increasing prices of onions, tomatoes, or potatoes. It’s the ultimate proof that the government is incompetent!
While good friend India has come to the aid of the beleaguered Bangladesh government by promptly allowing exports, the long-term and reliable solution to the problem of increasing onion and potato prices is only in sight once fresh harvest comes to the market. That is somewhere in February or March next year. By then, the elections would be over, and a new government would be in place. (IPA Service)