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The ‘us’ & ‘them’ of development

- Manmohan and Mamata take their cases to business platform

New Delhi, Dec. 15: The two stark faces of India’s development debate stared down at industry from the same podium within a space of 10 minutes today.

One was dispassionate yet cutting, shorn of pyrotechnics and received with gravity. The other was impassioned yet straitjacketed, alliterative and greeted by tickled applause.

Taken together, the speeches of Manmohan Singh and Mamata Banerjee at the Ficci annual general meeting today were the closest to a direct clash of ideas whose outcome will decide the course the country will take in this decade.

Without standing on ceremony, Manmohan referred to the recent “politically difficult” decisions and the “naysayers and the cynics” who tried to “halt us in our tracks”.

Then the Prime Minister delivered his conclusion that should set quite a cat among political pigeons of various feathers: “I am afraid that those who oppose these moves are either ignorant of global realities or are constrained by outdated ideologies.”

The barb of “outdated ideologies” has always been seen as a red rag to the Left. But Mamata has been trying to act more Left than the Left for a long time.

Ten minutes on — after the Prime Minister had left the venue — it was Mamata’s turn.

India Inc saw today what its Calcutta subsidiary had seen yesterday and the day before: an earnest chief minister high on emotion and low on specifics and regaling the audience but making some wish she had spoken a little more on business and less on her pet peeves.

The signature alliterations flowed unhindered: Bengal has “bhasha (language) to Nasa” and “computer to compounder”. On the sidelines, she displayed her penchant for repartee. Asked about the Prime Minister’s “outdated” reference, Mamata said: “I am with the people. Common people are always outdated.”

The Prime Minister’s comment on “ignorance of global realities” and “outdated” appears to have been related to decisions like FDI in multi-brand retail. “For example, when I hear the debate on FDI in retail, what I hear are arguments against large-scale organised retail, not against FDI in retail,” he had said.

Mamata did not refer to FDI but spoke of land. The chief minister not only did not budge from her stated hands-off position but held out an ominous scenario if industry insisted on forcible acquisition.

“Sometimes people say ‘acquire the land, fire the people and then build industry’. This is a wrong policy. Industry cannot be set up if there is disturbance… guns and goons. Industry can be set up in a peaceful manner in peaceful areas and co-exist with the common people,” the chief minister said, hard-selling the tourism potential of the seashores, jungles and mountains of Bengal.

Mamata kicked off her first interaction as chief minister with a business chamber by lambasting the media and then accusing the Centre of not providing enough support to debt-laden Bengal.

The chief minister compared Bengal to an “empty vessel,” leaving an industry captain to wonder aloud later if she was talking to industry or the Centre. “Who was she addressing, the industry or the Centre?” asked the senior Ficci member.

Another member, perhaps unaware of the Trinamul-Congreess-eat-Congress world of Bengal, asked: “Don’t you think she should be more tactful while criticising the Centre, if the state is dependent on it?”

Neither wanted to be named, pointing out that Ficci is the host and they should not be seen as picking on a guest.

Mamata took two questions: one from an industrialist from Bengal and another with investments in Bengal. One question related to land, which gave her a chance to speak on land bank. Another was on red tape, to which she said her email ID had been given to the questioner to tackle such issues.

Most of the 700-odd people assembled at the KK Birla auditorium admired her plainspeak and ability to communicate without frills.

But at least one member wondered whether she got carried away by emotion. “She said she has already achieved 99 per cent of her election commitments. We all know it is not true. Where is industry coming up?” asked the Ficci member with roots in Bengal.

More than one member felt that she should have devoted more time discussing the manufacturing industry — a sore point after the Nano departure.

But no one can accuse Mamata of being low on specifics on tourism. She dropped so many place names that one participant said he felt like he was sitting through a crash course on geography.

On honesty, the chief minister scored high. She promised at the outset that she would not “mislead” the audience with false promises. “ I will tell you what I can and what I cannot. Some you may like or may not like. But I am not here to mislead you,” she said.

Although Mamata said her English was not good, most participants agreed that she communicated well and got across her points without any scope for doubt.

“I think her speech has gone down well with the people. But investors will put money only after checking implementation on the ground,” a Ficci member said.

An official in charge of the business interest of a western European country said: “We find it very difficult to send any delegation to Calcutta. The ghost of Nano is still following her. By accepting to come to Delhi and speak to investors, she made a beginning. But a long way to go before industry seriously looks at Bengal.”