The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cocktail of cola & craft, Coke and Jaya willing
- CM seeks fizz for women’s groups

Buy a two-litre Coke bottle and take a wicker basket free.

It’s not on offer yet but it could be — or some other version of it — if Patrick T. Siewert, Coca-Cola’s East and South Asia group president, meant what he told Jayalalithaa.

Siewert made a courtesy call on the Tamil Nadu chief minister at her office to deliver syrupy concentrates of praise — as sweet as Pepsi' — for Jayalalithaa’s “enthusing administrative abilities”.

She may or may not have a sweet tooth but no politician has ever confessed to not feeling thirsty for a kind word or two about themselves.

Jayalalithaa did not simply smile and nod approvingly. She sprang a proposition Siewert could not say no to. Would Coke, please, use its Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari distribution network to sell handicrafts made by women’s self-help groups in Tamil Nadu'

The Coke executive agreed to consider her proposal. It’s difficult to tell if it’s one of those things people agree to because they can’t say no, but anybody should know the dangers of tangling with Jayalalithaa.

On the contrary, there’s something quite absurd in imagining Coke selling wicker baskets, though approval ratings from globalisation bashers would be high.

Self-help groups, promoted in the thousands to economically empower women, is an experiment close to Jayalalithaa’s heart. These groups make a wide variety of handmade products and handicraft items at village and district levels. But, in the absence of a wide marketing network, they have to depend on erratic state-sponsored efforts to sell through exhibitions.

Whether Coke will pursue the proposal is up for debate but it expressed the intent to invest more money in Tamil Nadu. The company said it planned to put up two more bottling units next year.

Siewert laid it on thick, telling Jayalalithaa that Coke was buying most of the sugar it requires from Tamil Nadu because the “quality was very good”.

The government has decided to privatise the state’s loss-making sugar cooperative factories and there’s potential here for business to be done with Coke, including the possibility of the company picking up a large chunk of shares in them.

As a gaggle of government officials and Coke managers, including the chief executive officer in India, Alex von Behr, listened attentively, he paid compliments to Jayalalithaa for her “progressive steps to open up the state’s economy for higher growth rates”.

Business is welcome, but Jayalalithaa turned the talk towards the social sector, too. She said Coke could help upgrade primary schools and primary health centres. Not to mention the wicker basket, of course.

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