India’s leadership has weathered heavy storms this year. It risked humiliation with the Commonwealth Games. It is currently mired in a scandal over the telecoms sector, where impropriety could have cost the exchequer as much as $39bn.
Yet it is the price of onions that really has Manmohan Singh, the 78-year-old prime minister, in a sweat.
Onions, used in abundance in north Indian cooking, have been known, before now, to topple Indian administrations. They ousted incumbents in 1980 and 1998. Their pungent risk is legendary, and poses a far greater threat than a sullied sporting image or sleaze among double-dealing cabinet ministers.
Politicians know to handle onions with care. So a sudden rise in prices, after November rains devastated the onion crop, has set alarm bells ringing in the PM’s residence. He has asked for “urgent steps” and is seeking an explanation for the “extraordinary price rise”.
The answer is that high prices will most probably persist until March.
Cometh the enemy
Seldom is Pakistan seen to aid its larger neighbour. But lorries laden with onions are ferrying across the border at Wagah, south Asia’s equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie, to restore calm to cooking pots.
Mr Singh has in the past said that India and China have shared destinies. Shared onions is a path to peace, and a debt to honour.
The lady protesteth
The power behind the septuagenarian technocrat is Sonia Gandhi, wife of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
She has a reputation for being a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a sari. As president of the Congress party she has authority but none of the responsibility of executive power, making, one diplomat say, the power structure in India more opaque than North Korea. During the global financial crisis Mrs Gandhi preached austerity – and an end to first-class travel – to her ministers. Now she complains India is suffering “a shrinking moral universe” from its accelerated economic growth.
Lofty observations that fall short of acknowledgement that the rot has deepened on her watch have, however, distilled into a plan.
Mrs Gandhi proposes fast-tracking corruption cases against politicians and bureaucrats, transparency in procurement, protection for whistleblowers and curbs on the discretionary powers of chief ministers in the states. She also proposes grasping the nettle of the world’s largest democracy’s unregulated election finance.
One top Mumbai-based business leader says governance in India is likely to be fixed last, as market forces improve lives and broaden horizons. So don’t hold your breath for the anti-corruption task force.
For many Indians Chinese leaders have all the charm of a rottweiler.
Shortly after China’s premier Wen Jiabao ended a three-day visit to New Delhi, WikiLeaks stirred Indian fears by airing US concerns that the Chinese were bribing Nepal’s police to stop Tibetans transiting their country to India and suspicions that Nepal’s Maoists were in cohoots with India’s increasingly violent Maoists.
Given this mistrust, Mr Wen did an extraordinary job of presenting a friendly face to India. In a televised address, he went off script to talk about Chinese calligraphy and how he was called “Grandpa Wen” by pupils. China-watchers say he is rarely as cuddly back home.
The more fearsome side of Chinese leadership these days is more readily associated with David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister. Vince Cable, the UK’s business secretary, has startled his cabinet colleagues by warning about the “Maoist” pace of public spending cuts by the Conservative-led government.
Either Mr Cameron needs a leaf out of modern Chinese diplomacy, or Mr Cable’s next foreign visit should be to the Indian hinterland where real Maoist cadres hold sway.
God of small things
One of the best buys this Christmas in India is not the iPod Nano but the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, at a little more than $2,000. After a slump in sales, the Tata Group is almost giving them away.
The much-feted car comes with a four-year warranty, and can be picked up for a zero down-payment as part of a 100 per cent loan scheme. Surely not even Apple can beat that.