The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Buddha dawns on business

Mumbai, June 2: A sincere chief minister, a transparent government and a state that seems to be changing — Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee boarded the flight to Calcutta this evening with a bouquet of compliments from leading industrialists.

“I am more than satisfied. It seems the attitude towards Bengal is changing,” the chief minister said with a smile after spending nearly six hours with business barons.

That is an achievement in itself because Bengal chief ministers are not known for taking the trouble of visiting Mumbai to court investors. In the past, it has been left to chief ministers of other states to come to Calcutta and sign up investments.

When, after all these years, Bhattacharjee made the move, he found the ballroom at the Taj hotel — which holds around 150 people — full. By the time he finished, there was applause but not before the gathering had thrown at him uncomfortable, if predictable, questions about law and order and labour militancy.

“Are you satisfied with the law and order situation'” asked Arun Maira, head of the Boston Consulting Group, the multinational consultants. The question was tied up with trade union activism.

“Things are not that bad,” the chief minister replied, defensive but not evasive. Quoting from National Crime Bureau statistics, he said the crime rate was low in Bengal. “There have been some kidnappings, but the kidnappers were from other states,” he said, smiling.

This was easy compared with what Pallabi Jha, representative of a splinter Walchand group, fired at him. “Are you really investor-friendly' Do you want foreign companies to invest in Bengal'” she asked.

The question challenged the chief minister to either deny his ideological moorings or junk his ideology. Bhattacharjee did neither. “We don’t have any hidden agenda. Though Left, we know the reality and we invite investment from various parts of the country and the world,” he said.

Perhaps, this quality of facing up to unpleasant facts about his state appealed to industrialists. Tarun Das, director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, which organised today’s event with the Bengal government, said: “This kind of honesty we do not see among politicians — neither in India nor anywhere else in the world.”

Adi Godrej, of the Godrej group, agreed. He had a separate meeting with Bhattacharjee in the hotel’s Bell Tower Suite that was converted into a makeshift office for the chief minister.

The round of one-to-one meetings with business leaders started at 10 when M.K. Sharma, vice-president of Hindustan Lever, called on the chief minister.

“I think there will be an announcement shortly on our initiatives in the state with regard to marine food and agro-processing,” Sharma said.

Bhattacharjee also met Ajay Piramal of Nicholas Piramal, Hemendra Kothari of DSP Merrill Lynch, Anand Mahindra of Mahindra and Mahindra and Ratan Tata. “West Bengal needs promotion and I think he is the chief minister who will make it happen,” Tata said after a 25-minute meeting.

Mahindra, also the president of the CII, said his company was looking at assembling farm equipment in Bengal. “We know things are changing. We are aware of the positive developments in the agriculture sector that has helped in creating a huge rural market. We think that the state can emerge as a surprise mover.”

Piramal said he would check out the opportunities. Pharmaceuticals, where Piramal is a leader, was one of the three areas the chief minister highlighted in his 18-minute address to the gathering. The other two were automobiles and textiles.

Industry minister Nirupam Sen will visit Mumbai later to follow up some of the “interesting proposals” that emerged.

When Bhattacharjee spoke to the local media later, the concern about Bengal’s law and order and labour problems appeared more acute than what was expressed by the businessmen.

Bhattacharjee had earlier taken a shy at his host state, though. “I think the situation is worse in Maharashtra.”

As Maharashtra chief minister, Sharad Pawar — then in the Congress — had sat in a Calcutta hotel and signed industrial projects one after the other in the mid-nineties. The Bengal Congress had then said the Left Front should learn from Maharashtra. The reply from a senior minister was: “Bengal has nothing to learn from Maharashtra.”

Things have changed since.

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