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Mitra says goodbye to Ficci

New Delhi, May 18: Amit Mitra has finally bid adieu to his “home” for 17 years – Federation House on Tansen Marg.

On Wednesday, Mitra resigned as secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), the 84-year-old business forum that he deftly steered through the so-called “years of change” since 1994.

Sources say the seniors’ committee at the chamber of commerce will meet on Monday to pick Mitra’s successor. Well-known economist and Ficci director-general Rajiv Kumar seems to be the front-runner in the race to take over as the new secretary-general at Ficci.

Mitra, who is widely tipped to become the finance minister of Bengal, leaves behind a rich legacy of professionalism, hard-nosed economic pragmatism, and adroit lobbying skills at the premier chamber of commerce.

Before Mitra appeared on the scene, the cosy businessmen’s club was run like a typical “Lala” organisation with little professionalism and happy to let a cabal of India’s top businessmen run the show — who depended heavily on a wining-and-dining style of public relations with politicians, bureaucrats and journalists.

When liberalisation happened in 1991, Ficci found itself badly adrift and unable to marshal cogent arguments validated by serious economic research against a precipitate course of action that threatened to bury India’s storied names.

CII, the rival business chamber run by the more media savvy Tarun Das, seemed to have successfully eclipsed Ficci’s stars.

Mitra, who attained his doctorate in economics from Duke University in the US where he later taught for a few years, did two things after assuming office at Ficci. First, he hired a lot of bright, young economists who started churning out well thought out counter notes on various economic legislations and policies. It was only after that policymakers started to take Ficci a little more seriously.

Second, he professionalised the organisation, telling it that it had to earn its keep and not depend on doles from business houses.

“What we did was to turn Ficci into a flatter, more decentralised organisation,” said Mitra in a telephonic conversation with The Telegraph.

As a result of the second move, Ficci was able to ratchet up its revenues from about Rs 3 crore when Mitra took over the reins to Rs 110 crore today.

Ficci held hugely profitable conferences and exhibitions within and outside the country, including in areas where nobody in the organisation had ever thought of before such as films and media. In the year that Mitra took over, the chamber of commerce had organised just 10 conferences. Last year, it had held almost 500.

Said Sugato Hazra, a former Ficci secretary (economic affairs), “There was no business orientation in the chamber till Dr Mitra came along.”

However, it was Ficci’s intervention in policy formulation that really spelt enormous success for Mitra and his chamber. He was able to successfully block the implementation of rules that would have allowed foreign multinationals to dump their Indian partners on a whim and set up new, wholly owned subsidiaries, which effectively killed older partnerships. The MNCs — most of which were based in the US — were vilified as cowboy capitalists and Mitra and his cohorts were able to persuade the government to see reason against such a precipitate measure.

Mitra successfully lobbied the government to re-frame the ground rules for doing business in India through the ground-breaking Press Note 18 of 1998. But this Press Note was so successful in muzzling the MNCs that it soon started being misused. It forced the the government and Ficci to sit together to draw up Press Note 1 of 2005, which said foreign companies would need government permission to set up rival ventures instead of no-objection certificates.

The policy lobbying was not confined to the Indian shores alone. “We set up some nine international offices including London, Beijing and Washington, where we are one block away from the White House,” Mitra said.

However, the proximity to White House did not stop Ficci and Mitra from opposing the lowering of India’s tariff on industrial imports or opposing US moves to increase internal farm subsidy.

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