According to my MP brother Jo, an India buff and former FT Delhi man, we are continually underselling ourselves out here, mystifyingly failing to capitalise on the advantages of language, history and culture
Indira Gandhi was swept to power in 1980 on a cheap onion ticket. In the last few weeks the government of Manmohan Singh has been driven to a desperate quantitative easing in the supply of the precious bulbs. They have banned exports of onions to Pakistan. They have been freighting them in – and still the price of this essential nutrient can only be described as eye-watering.
"It is crazy," says one Mumbai housewife. "They used to cost 5 rupees a kilo, and now it can be up to 80 rupees a kilo. The government must sort it out," she warns, "or else there will be trouble." Already the opposition BJP has been out on the streets, wearing onion hats and fanning the flames of outrage.
I hope my Indian friends and relations will forgive me for lingering, in a slightly gloating way, on the onion crisis. I do so because just about everything else on the Indian economic landscape is so awesome as to make us British positively jealous. It is a mind-blowing experience to come back to Mumbai after a gap of 12 years, and to see the reality of India's boom. You arrive at a new airport; you are conveyed over new ramparted expressways and long sea bridges past a forest of new skyscrapers, and all around you can see the signs of money cascading, or at least trickling, through society. Yes, you have no choice but to marvel at the rather beautiful new $2 billion house of the Ambani family, a vast vertical hamlet for plutocrats with a design that vaguely recalls a snazzy Bang and Olufsen hi-fi stack.
But the Ambanis are not the only ones to have prospered. I don't think it's just the result of some Potemkin-style clean-up that there are fewer beggars knocking on your window at the traffic lights, fewer limbless mendicants scooting on tea-trays, and fewer people sleeping on the streets. Of course there is still poverty and squalor of a kind we find shocking, but everywhere you go in Mumbai you can feel the momentum and excitement that goes with 9.5 per cent growth per annum.
I have met dozens of Indian businessmen, who supply everything from most of London's electric vehicles to the software for the congestion charge, and they are full of an intoxicating confidence. "We own your Jaguar cars, we own Land Rover, we own your steel – it's reverse colonisation!" says one man. If you were of a gloomy disposition, you might start to worry. Here is this great Indian bullock cart careering ahead – and here we are back in western Europe and America, still mired in the rancid politics of our recession. You will find plenty of British pundits who will argue that the fall of Lehman Bros in 2008 marked a decisive moment in post-Cold War history. It was the financial humiliation of the West, they say, and following the military humiliation of America in Iraq and Afghanistan there is now an irreversible transfer of wealth and power from west to east. China and India will continue to rise, they argue, while Europe is tortured on the Procrustean rack of the euro and the Americans turn inwards and against free trade. We are entering a zero-sum world, they say, in which people no longer believe that a rising tide will lift all boats, but that one nation can get rich at the expense of another. For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was dominated by the logic of free trade and globalisation – and the sad truth about globalisation, say these gloomy pundits, is that it is now a bad word in the political lexicon. Well, these pundits may be right in their analysis of how people feel, but that doesn't mean the anti-globalisers are right. If the world turns its back on globalisation it will be an all-round disaster – and especially for a country like Britain. When you look at India, you see a middle class already numbering 400 million, and a further 700 million people in the process of acquiring goods and services that their parents could never dream of. Surely we can lasso that rampaging Indian bullock and get some more traction for Britain. It is a wretched indictment of Labour that Gordon Brown didn't come here for 10 years after he became Chancellor, and that Britain dropped in that period from India's fourth largest trading partner to number 18 – swapping places almost exactly with Germany. According to my MP brother Jo, an India buff and former FT Delhi man, we are continually underselling ourselves out here, mystifyingly failing to capitalise on the advantages of language, history and culture. We still have the world's leading financial services, accountants, PR folk and advertising gurus; and if Mumbai is going to build a Tube system, which it badly needs, then why the hell don't British contractors and consultants get on out here and pitch for it, with the mud of Crossrail still on their boots? The best hope for the world economy is the consumerist energy of places like India, and in this uneasy dawn of 2011 the best psychological boost for world trade would be completion of the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation. Why are onions so expensive in India? Because agriculture is the last unreformed part of the economy, creaking with middlemen and inefficiency. I leave you with this astonishing fact: a kilo of Tesco market brown onions is 59p in London, fully 40p cheaper than in Delhi during the recent inflation. It may not be practical to sell English onions to India (though I wouldn't rule it out); but with a world trade deal we would at least be able to sell the expertise in logistics that allows us to grow them so cheaply. We know banking, we know about universities, and we know our onions too.