The encounters of the West Bengal chief minister with industrialists are always worth looking forward to. There is an element of unpredictability to them, and media always look for a surprise. Nor is it only the media; the industrialists must have had the surprise of their lives when the chief minister called upon them to sing at the Haldia meeting. They may have come prepared to sing her praises, but without a thought to the rhyme and rhythm. They might also have been ready for a roll call to evoke from them promises of doing their bit for Bengal. But nothing could have led them to expect the friendly warmth to which they were exposed at the meeting called by the chief minister in the capital of Maharashtra. It may be that, as Mukesh Ambani pointed out, the panchayat elections were extremely encouraging for her and she looked to new battlefields to score new victories.
What is more likely, however, is that she cannot have failed to notice that far from attracting industry to West Bengal, she has till now only managed to repel and expel it. The contretemps in Haldia was not good publicity for the state. The conflict with the Tatas over Haldia may have ended in a victory, in the sense that the high court did not rule in the Tatasí favour. But the land at issue continues to lie derelict. It may have found a use; the long conversation the chief minister had with Mr Ambani may lead to an outcome. It cannot be a refinery, for the land is not large enough, and logistics are not great. But something like plastics or synthetic fibre may fit in. It would have been better if the chief minister had been equally charming to Cyrus Mistry, the new face of the Tatas, and reached an amicable settlement; but if bruised egos made that impossible, courting the Tatasí equals and competitors also made some sense.
But a factory in Haldia is not enough; West Bengal needs much more. Land is only one thing that is required to attract investment; what is necessary is a business proposition. The Tatas would have been prepared to produce cars in West Bengal because they had lagged behind their competitors; but locations in the south or west of India are closer to the market and to ports. The same logic applies to tractors, televisions or air conditioners, whose manufacturers attended the chief ministerís meeting. What would make a difference to them is if the markets in Bangladesh, and in northeastern India and Myanmar, were opened up to them by a location in West Bengal. Something like this was in the prime ministerís mind when he planned his trip to Bangladesh, which was torpedoed by the chief minister. Now that she has turned her charm upon industrialists with success, she should also try it out on the prime minister.