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…and too long a speech on talk shops…

Dec. 27: Jayalalithaa today spoke out against the national pastime of convening talking shops but the articulate chief minister undermined her own case by turning up with a 4,570-word speech and walking out when the buzzer went off after a 10-minute ceiling.

The Tamil Nadu chief minister had reached the sixth paragraph of her 34-paragraph speech at the National Development Council (NDC) meeting in New Delhi when the countdown clock placed in a corner rang.

The loud chime appears to have jolted the chief minister, who was referring to a cable network complaint related to the DMK family. Jayalalithaa said the rest of her speech should be considered “as read” and left the convention hall where the 12th Plan Document was being discussed.

Jayalalithaa told reporters later: “By just allowing 10 minutes and humiliating us in this way, they need not have called us all the way to Delhi to participate in this meeting. It has stifled the voice of the chief ministers in the Opposition.”

At the outset, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia had announced that since there were quite a few speakers, the 10-minute rule had been introduced.

The secretary in the Planning Commission, Sindhushree Khullar, had sent a letter to state chief secretaries, conveying that the maximum permissible time for each chief minister would be 10 minutes because of time constraints. Such a note is nothing short of revolutionary in a country where speeches can stretch for hours, oblivious to the torment of the listeners who sometimes have to contend with the added occupational hazard of television cameras that do not let them seek shelter in a siesta.

The buzzer sounded when Jayalalithaa had completed around 870 words (20 per cent) of her speech. To put the full 4,570-word speech in perspective, 85 per cent of a full page of The Telegraph will be required to accommodate it if only text — without any visual — is used.

But Jayalalithaa, whose English speeches usually last 30 to 40 minutes and those in Tamil longer, does not fall in the category of marathon speakers, especially if the record of her political mentor, the late M.G. Ramachandran, is counted. The iconic MGR once spoke for eight hours — four hours on the first day and another four on the second day — while replying to the debate on the governor’s address.

Today, Jayalalithaa began on a promising note by questioning the need for talking shops such as the NDC. Her opening lines: “To be honest, the purpose and intention of such meetings completely eludes me. We are already nearly three-quarters of the way into the first year of the Twelfth Plan. I wonder whether it would be useful to comment on the contents of the 12th Plan Document, since it is very unlikely that any such views would be taken on board.”

What the chief minister said cannot be disputed entirely. The Twelfth Plan is from 2012 to 2017, which means the first year is nearly over. Substantial decisions are usually taken at one-on-one talks with either the chief ministers or the finance ministers.

Although no other chief minister left the venue midway when the buzzer went off later, several did not stay for long after their respective speeches ended. The absence of an agenda disappointed some chief secretaries. “Neither were views exchanged nor our suggestions accepted,” an officer said.

Mamata Banerjee, another chief minister who could have struck a resounding blow for federalism, was not present today, although her government had cited alphabetical primacy at meetings such as the NDC for recommending that the name of West Bengal be changed to Paschimbanga.

Mamata is in north Bengal now, which meant finance minister Amit Mitra represented her at the Delhi meeting.

During a tea break, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said “states not represented by chief ministers were being given only eight minutes” —two minutes less than that for chief ministers.

Jayalalithaa was the first to speak after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whose speech lasted 20 minutes — official sources said a goodwill gesture was extended to her.

After Jayalalithaa’s speech, the others paid heed to the buzzer. The system is similar to the one that allows three minutes each to MPs for special mentions in Parliament. In the House, after the allotted three minutes, the microphones go mute — that was not the case at Vigyan Bhavan where the NDC meeting was held.

The buzzer sounded when Jayalalithaa had completed around 20 per cent of her speech.

The portion Jayalalithaa could not read out but was tabled had some scathing remarks on the Centre on FDI in retail and its “big brotherly and undemocratic approach”.

The concluding paragraph says: “The NDC should be a forum where the states are called to discuss, debate and evolve mutually beneficial programmes and policies, instead of a meeting place where opinions are sought with monotonous regularity but no action is taken.”

The Centre rejected Jayalalithaa’s charges of discrimination, saying the same time limit applied to Congress chief ministers as well.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik said later: “Every chief minister was given 10 minutes each.”

Narendra Modi, at whose swearing-in Jayalalithaa stood out because not too many non-BJP chief ministers showed up, reciprocated the gesture today.

Asked if 10 minutes were enough to put forth a state’s views, Modi laughed and said: “The less they hear, the better it is for them (the Centre).”

The Prime Minister himself seemed satisfied at the end of the day. “We have had a very full and long day of deliberations. I thank all chief ministers for complying with the electronically imposed time limit. Had they not complied with the limit, we would not have been able to accommodate 40 speakers even in this long session,” he said.