The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ficci wins over political top guns in chamber rivalry

New Delhi, Nov 28: In the cut-and-thrust world of chamber politics, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) has finally scored one over its bete noires— the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

Ficci has received confirmation that all the leading lights of the political spectrum—Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, deputy PM L. K. Advani, finance minister Jaswant Singh and leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi—will attend its 75th annual general meeting which begins on December 13.

That is a blow of sorts for the CII, which received short shrift from the ruling political establishment that spurned its request to hold forth on the travails of the Indian economy with several top industrialists, at the India Economic Summit it jointly hosted with the Davos-based World Economic Forum earlier this week.

The chambers usually shimmy up to the political establishment because it gives them the opportunity to lobby for causes and issues that industry holds dear. It’s a game of one-upmanship to establish the desired “political leverage”, but the chambers themselves prefer to term it as establishing a ‘cordial relationship’ with political leaders.

Since liberalisation began in 1991, CII has emerged as the premier industry chamber having established close relations with every single ruling establishment.

But last February, it made a huge gaffe when it invited Sonia Gandhi to inaugurate its annual general meeting—an opportunity she used for government bashing. Although Vajpayee was invited for the valedictory function, it was small consolation and failed to soothe the ruling establishment’s ruffled feelings.

That one slip has now given Ficci the chance to tilt the balance, however slightly, in its favour.

The CII secretariat denies that the “change of mood” of the government towards the chamber has anything to do with the February faux pas.

Communications minister Pramod Mahajan, labour minister Sahib Singh Verma and foreign minister Yashwant Sinha and a few ministers of state including Rajiv Pratap Rudy were the only ones who attended the India Economic Summit.

However, some sessions were attended by finance secretary S. Narayan, Jagdish Shettigar, member of the PM’s economic advisory council, V. Govindrajan, secretary in the ministry of commerce, power secretary R. V. Shahi, Sanjay Sudhir, deputy chief of protocol, ministry of external affairs, and director general of foreign trade.

CII director-general Tarun Das said immediately after the inaugural that “after both the PM and FM expressed their inability to attend the inauguration of the WEF, we decided to do without any political figures. The session went off much better than in previous years.” But that was just a feeble attempt to make a virtue of a weak situation.

CII members aren’t, however, pleased about media attention on this aspect of chamber politics. “We do not think that there is anything serious to be read into what has happened. It must be a one-time problem that just happened by fluke,” said one official who did not wish to be named.

While the CII secretariat remained tight-lipped about the matter, Ficci officials were excited about its AGM, which is a two-day affair.

“This is our Platinum Jubilee, so we want it to be a glittering success. The long list of dignitaries attending the event will ensure that. Generally, political invitees are sounded a couple of months before the function and, depending on the availability of dignitaries, we try to work out the schedule. The formal invitations go out 15-20 days before the event. But everything depends on relations between the top bosses,” Ficci sources said.

While Vajpayee will be inaugurating the AGM, Ficci is yet to decide on the sessions that will be graced by the other political dignitaries. “We have still some time left before the curtain-raiser and will decide soon enough,” he added.

All eyes will now be on CII’s Partnership Summit in January. The big question on everyone’s mind is: will the political big guns turn up'

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