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
It may have so far escaped your notice that there is an onion crisis in India, but this thing is serious. Onions are the fundament of every curry ever cooked. Before the meat or the tomatoes or the garam masala, onions sizzle in the pan of 1.2 billion hungry Indians – and when the price of onions goes up too high, governments come crashing down.
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.