Cyrus Mistry, Mukesh Ambani, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Anand Mahindra and their peers in Mumbai let out a collective sigh of relief when they heard that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was postponing her road show, originally scheduled to be held in Mumbai on 13 February, in a bid to attract investments. Some of them have even stopped looking for music teachers.
The concept of singing for one’s supper was taken to new heights (or depths) at the Bengal Leads 2013 summit in Haldia, West Bengal, in mid-January. I wasn’t there but a well-known industrialist from Bengal, no longer based in Kolkata, sent me a YouTube link (http://youtu.be/Kf_lowxcwAw). Based on that, you could describe what happened there as low comedy (or high tragedy).
After the Mumbai road show, she planned to take a delegation of industrialists to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I don’t know whether the plan still stands and, if indeed it does, whether anyone will be asked to express themselves in song.
Others will be happy that their names aren’t about to get mixed up, as happened at the Haldia meeting.
Kurush Grant, executive director of ITC Ltd, was repeatedly addressed by the chief minister as Deveshwar ji at the Haldia summit. Grant first pretended he hadn’t heard but when she kept entreating Deveshwar ji to say something, the man had to finally stand up and say gently that, Mr Deveshwar was in Delhi, that his name was Grant and that ITC was very happy to be in West Bengal and so on.
Grant should be happy he wasn’t asked to sing. And, at least she didn’t refer to him as “my” Deveshwar ji. For Banerjee, West Bengal is one big, happy family—her “Paschim Banga” parivar as it were. And this family is peopled by “my minister” and “my secretary”, she told her “industrial parivar”.
Most industry captains didn’t turn up in Kolkata but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. There were senior representatives from Terai Tea, Renuka Sugars, Peerless Hospital, apart from a lock maker, a small scale electric equipment maker and a company that offers helicopter services to corporate bosses. Among the high profile industrialists, I saw Prasoon Mukherjee, chairman, Universal Success Enterprises Ltd, C.K. Dhanuka, executive chairman, Dhunseri Petrochem and Tea Ltd, and Sanjiv Goenka of CESC Ltd. Looked for and missed were Harsh Neotia of Ambuja Realty, “my” Steel Authority of India Ltd chairman and “my” NTPC Ltd chairman.
To be fair to her, she was all praise for Gujarat’s industrial success but reminded everyone about her contribution to the making of a “new Gujarat”. As railway minister in 2001, she’d made sure that rail links were re-established in the earthquake-devastated state in 12 hours, she said. “That’s how the new Gujarat came up,” she concluded.
Her own state is crumbling under the burden of Rs.2.03 trillion debt while revenue collection is just Rs.21,000 crore a year. The “scandalous” 34-year Left rule in West Bengal is to be blamed for the decay, she said. Things are changing and the state under her is growing at a faster rate than the country (at 8.6% in the first quarter of the current fiscal and 6.48% in the second quarter versus 5.5% and 5.3% for the country, respectively).
She championed the state and its future: “We will conquer the world… It will be (the) destination of the country, of the entire world,” while highlighting the three biggest selling points of the state—its “intelligentsia”, “potentiality” and “cheap labour”.
If her claims are true, she has been doing a great job. For instance, in 2011, the state recorded a loss of 6.8 million working days; the figure dropped to 65,000 in 2012 and 5,000 in the current year. The government has already created a land bank, a power bank (it will have excess power after three years), and an employment bank (one click and you get unorganized labour). It is setting up film cities, deep sea ports, power plants, steel plants, and launching hundreds of public private participation (PPP) projects for education, health and tourism. It is drawing up a textile policy and even an export policy (whatever that means). The tax collection in the state has gone up from Rs.21,000 crore to Rs.31,000 crore in one and a half years.
“I have fulfilled all commitments made in the party’s election manifesto. What more do you want?” she asked. Obviously, nobody could ask for more. So, they kept quiet and clapped. A visibly moved identifier Prasoon Mukherjee announced that Anil Ambani told him he was making a huge investment in the state and the Tatas are giving lakhs employment even after the Nano car project went to Gujarat. (The Tatas had been forced to withdraw from West Bengal after an agitation against the project led by one Mamata Banerjee before she became chief minister.)
It was a grand exhibition of Didi’s oratory and passion, but she never lost the sight of real issues. So, when the helicopter service provider tried to ask her for some concessions, she told him first to have double-engined helicopters because safety was important, perhaps guided by her experience as railway minister—a tenure that saw several accidents.
At some point, the chief minister felt it was time to wind up the proceedings, and do so on a suitably melodious note. Dhanuka was chosen to have a go. Giving him support was Goenka, probably by virtue of his ownership of music company Saregama India Ltd.
Dhanuka rendered a patriotic song, followed by Tagore’s Ekla chalo re, with Goenka providing quietly harmonic support.
Then Banerjee sang the national anthem, signalling the end of proceedings.
Given the state of West Bengal’s finances, Banerjee needs industrialists and the investment they may bring. She could start by getting their names right. State finance minister Amit Mitra could help—after all, he was the head of one of India’s biggest chambers of commerce for several years. And, while everyone likes a bit of music, there is a time and place for everything. When it comes to encouraging attendance and investment, acute embarrassment doesn’t really work as an incentive.
Tamal Bandyopadhyay keeps a close eye on everything banking from his perch as Mint’s deputy managing editor in Mumbai. He is also the author of A Bank for the Buck, a book on HDFC Bank.