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Business minus ministers

- Chamber invite reflects Bengal’s ground reality

Calcutta, Nov. 5: Apex chamber Ficci is staring at the possibility of holding its national executive meeting in the city without any address by a state minister, unless the government changes its mind overnight.

The official invitation to the two-day meeting, which begins on Tuesday, does not mention any minister’s name. Last year, industries minister Partha Chatterjee and finance minister Amit Mitra had attended the meeting but chief minister Mamata Banerjee did not.

A confluence of events this year has stood in the way of participation by Chatterjee and Mitra who used to be Ficci secretary-general. Chatterjee will be in Haldia tomorrow, apparently to lay the groundwork for a fair that has gained importance against the backdrop of the port mess there. Mitra is in London to take part in a tourism conference.

Neither officials of the chamber nor sources in the government would confirm if either Chatterjee or Mitra was invited to the meeting this time. Industry veterans said had Mitra been in town, he as well as Chatterjee would probably have been invited.

The industry sources added that the chamber might not have pursued the attendance of other ministers as the chief minister did not participate last time. Many chief executives had then dropped out of the meeting after learning that Mamata would skip the event. An ego tussle within the government is also being blamed for the absence of a commitment from the chief minister’s office on her attendance this year.

Like last year, a delegation is expected to call on Mamata this time, too. Minister Chatterjee is expected to meet Ficci leaders “informally over dinner” at the home of an industrialist who is also a past zonal chairman of the chamber.

These interactions are expected to involve only the office-bearers of the chamber and a handful of stalwarts. The broader council would miss the opportunity to interact with the chief minister or her council of ministers, unless the situation changes tomorrow.

“Probably, we don’t deserve to have one (minister) among us. What else can be said?” said a Ficci member.

Another city-based industrialist spoke of probable reasons for the perceived lack of enthusiasm in ensuring ministers’ participation at the meeting. “The key decisions are anyway taken by the chief minister. Besides, we all know the ground reality in Bengal. Business decisions are taken based on that reality, not on the basis of question-answer sessions at meetings,” he said.

Confirmed official participation at the Ficci meeting has so far been confined to an interaction with Sunil Mitra, the chairman of the Planning Commission’s panel on entrepreneur development, on Wednesday.

The picture was different in Chennai earlier this year. Tamil Nadu’s industry minister and finance minister addressed the Ficci national executive meeting in July, although chief minister Jayalalithaa did not attend. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit had attended the last such meeting of Ficci in the national capital.

If a pattern has to be found, a faint one emerges in Bengal. Mamata’s predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was a regular presence at such meetings — until his drive for industry began to boomerang. The appearances ebbed after the Tata pullout from Singur, although Bhattacharjee did attend a Ficci meeting in October 2010 when the then administration had entered its last lap.

Apart from Ficci president R.V. Kanoria, Naina Lal Kidwai, the chamber’s president-elect and HSBC India boss, and senior officials from Barclays, the Aditya Birla group, Goldman Sachs, Panasonic India and Vodafone India are likely to be present at the Ficci event tomorrow.

It is not Ficci alone that has to adjust to changed circumstances. The CII, the other national chamber, has not held its national executive meeting in Calcutta since the change of the political guard.

“It is absolutely imperative that the chief minister of the state where such a meeting takes place attend the meeting,” a former CII zonal chairman said.

Sources said the CII was yet to get a confirmation from the chief minister’s office on her attendance and, hence, it was unable to firm up plans.

“Calcutta is always a preferred destination for such meetings in the east because members can reach in the morning and fly out in the evening. Anywhere else in the eastern region, a night stay is required,” the former CII chairman explained.

Mamata may also have learned a lesson from Bhattacharjee’s experience. Bhattacharjee was feted as the “best chief minister” at business interactions but eulogies were buried under the land-driven landslide that propelled Mamata to power.

“It is most likely that the new chief minister has taken a lesson from that. She knows her limitations and more important, the limitation of her policies. She probably also knows that lip service won’t sound convincing, especially after the impression of bias related to the AMRI crackdown and the recent Haldia trouble,” an industrialist said.


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