Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav, the main Opposition leader in Uttar Pradesh (UP), feels that in the general elections next year, it is the potato that will overthrow the ruling party.

When Yadav tweeted recently ‘abki baar aloo badlegi sarkar’ he meant that the ruling party is not helping the potato farmer to get the price in the mandi that the crop merits.

Potato farmers all over UP are distressed today. Potato fields across the state from Farrukhabad, Kannauj, Sambhal, Agra, Aligarh to Hathras are responsible for nearly 30 percent of the country's total potato production.

Potatoes grown in Farrukhabad, including the red potato, are popular not only within the country but are in great demand in neighbouring countries as well. Farrukhabad is the largest potato growing region in the state.

This year has seen a bumper potato crop and farmers had looked forward to making a bit of money. But they are shocked at the low price offered to them for the first crop of potatoes that has just reached markets from Farrukhabad. Farmers in Farrukhabad say that if they do not get a respectable price, they will stop digging the fields for more potatoes.

When potato fields in Agra, Aligarh and Hathras are dug in a few days, the price of the vegetable from Farrukhabad is expected to fall further. This is a depressing thought for the farmers of Farrukhabad.

Free from the misfortune of untimely rain, and disease farmers sit on mountain loads of a healthy crop of potatoes that middlemen are ready to buy at throw away prices. Traders are hopping from farmer to farmer willing to buy only at the lowest of low price, taking advantage of the fact that farmers are eager to sell the glut in potato crop before it begins to rot.

Despite agreeing to pay for storing the potato, cold storages are turning truck-loads of potatoes away saying that they are already packed to capacity, adding to the distress of the farmer. It seems the number of cold storages available are not enough to store the bumper yield of potatoes harvested this year.

Within a week of digging potatoes out of the field it needs to be sold or stored otherwise insects spoil the vegetable. The government is in the habit of buying only medium sized potatoes, overlooking the large and small potatoes. The fear is that a large amount of potatoes may perish this season.

The initial good news of an exceptionally excessive yield of potatoes has now become a headache for the farmers of UP due to the declining procurement policy of the state. If the farmer is unable to sell potatoes at least for Rs 900 a quintal, he is doomed and totally unable to recover costs, making him slip into debt.

The cost of cultivating one quintal is about Rs 850 therefore the selling price has got to be more than that for the survival of the farmer.

The Precious Aloo

The potato is a favourite of both the pauper and the prince. When the great great-granddaughter of the last monarch of Avadh Waji Ali Shah, Manzilat Fatima visited me in Lucknow from Kolkata, she sat digging the dish of biryani I had prepared for her, for the potato.

“Where is the potato?” Manzilat had wanted to know. I went into the kitchen and got her some potatoes and she refused them saying, she meant “where are the potatoes in the biryani?”

In Lucknow it is sacrilege to add potatoes to the regal recipe of a biryani that is prepared with delicacies like succulent pieces of mutton tenderised with mysterious masalas and sprinkled with the very aromatic vetiver and saffron. However, at some stage in history the humble potato crawled its way into the royal kitchen in Kolkata’s Matiaburj, where Wajid Ali Shah had made a home after leaving Lucknow in 1856.

To this day, the Lucknow biryani is not prepared with potatoes. In fact, purists are quick to screw up their noses at the thought of mixing vegetables with non-vegetarian dishes. But for both purists and experimentalists in Kolkata, the biryani is unthinkable without the potato.

Manzilat was born in Kolkata but her mother is from Lucknow who Manzilat says taught her much about Awadhi cuisine. Did Manzilat’s mother not mention that potatoes are not allowed in the Lucknow biryani, I wonder?

So how and when did the potato crawl its way into the biryani of the Badshah? The most common legend goes something like this. It was in the middle of the 19th Century when Wajid Ali had travelled by road from Lucknow to Kolkata with a large entourage of wives, relatives, countless chefs and many musicians to resettle beside the Hooghly River on the outskirts of Kolkata in a lifestyle similar to the one he had left behind in Lucknow.

Short on wealth and many mouths to feed in Kolkata, the inventive chefs in the royal kitchen began to add more potatoes than mutton to the biryani.

There are others who vehemently refute this stingy sounding story to say no, this is not correct as Wajid Ali Shah would have rather perished than compromise on the majestic ways meals were expected to stew in his kitchen.

In the mid 19th Century the potato was considered an exotic vegetable, and the Lucknow chefs in the Kolkata kitchen wanted only the best that they had felt was fit for the dining table of a king.

The Muslim Vote

A member of the ruling party, Kunwar Basit Ali is one of those few Muslims who are convinced that the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) means well towards the minority population of the country. He points to the ‘One Country One DNA’ program of the ruling party that is trying to reach out to Muslim voters in preparation for the general elections to be held next year.

Basit Ali is the host of a ‘sneh sammelan’ or a meeting full of love in the western part of UP where the entire ethnic Jat community is being encouraged to share the podium with Jats following a different faith. This is an effort by the ruling party to woo the Jat followers of the very popular Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Jayant Chaudhary in the same constituency.

The population of Muslim Rajputs, Muslim Jats and Muslim Gurjar is around 2.5 lakh, but there is no one leader who unites this bloc of Muslim voters under one umbrella.

A large number of Muslim Rajputs, Muslim Jats, Muslim Gurjars and Muslim Tyagi find themselves leaderless although traditionally they have rallied around secular leaders like Jayant’s grandfather Chaudhary Charan Singh, in the past.