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Since 1st March, 1999
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Magic moment for Manmohan

The honorary degree ceremony at Cambridge for Manmohan Singh (matriculated St John’s, 1956) was wonderful. There was music performed before and after the Congregation by the King’s Trumpeters who were positioned high on a balcony, facing the packed audience in the Senate House.

The long and heavy gold train of the chancellor, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was borne by a young Indian man who stood behind him throughout the hour-long ceremony and then followed him out again.

It took 10 minutes for the chancellor’s procession to troop in for Cambridge has quite a caste system. There were the esquire bedells, the university marshal, the proctors, the high steward, the commissary, the pro vice-chancellors, the university constables and the pro-proctors. (When I took a photo of Kamal Nath later, the commerce and industry minister asked to stand in front of a quaintly-dressed group carrying spears.)

They had been preceded by the vice-marshal, heads of colleges, regius professors, professors who are doctors, doctors, other professors, members of the university council and the deputy proctors.

Among the dons I spotted Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor of Economics and Fellow of St John’s, where Manmohan Singh remains an Honorary Fellow, incidentally.

Also present was Dr Alison Richard, the university’s 344 th vice-chancellor and the first woman to hold the position full-time (at the party afterwards, she told me she would be visiting India to promote and strengthen the country’s links with the University).

There was instrumental music performed by the Cambridge Graduate Chamber Ensemble which had selected “Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in G Major Op 54 no. 1”.

All this had been organised for what the Prime Minister described in his address as “a simple young Indian (who) came to St John’s from an obscure university in Punjab”.

The orator really entered into the spirit of the occasion and read the citation in Latin which very few understood but his voice sounded suitably dramatic — “praesento uobis magistrum in artibus, ministrorum Indorum caput, collegi Sancti Iohannis Euangelistae honoris causa socium Mamohan Singh.”

Or in translation: “I present to you Manmohan Singh, M.A., Prime Minister of India and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College.”

For me, there was a magic interlude. That was when the choir of St John’s College sang words from the English translation done by Rabindranth Tagore himself of Gitanjali — “Into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake”. The music was by Jonathan Willcocks, with David Hill as director.

Had Tagore been present, he, too, would have been enchanted to witness Gitanjali being elevated to loftier new heights.

Healing touch

Last week I went to Delhi and met Dr Manmohan Singh shortly before he arrived in London for his summit with Tony Blair. We talked mainly about economic issues but I did ask him whether there were tips he had picked up at Cambridge — he was pulled between the Left-leaning Joan Robinson and the more capitalist-oriented Nicholas Kaldor — that he was now applying as Prime Minister of India.

Dr Singh flattered me by assuming I would be familiar with The Economics of Welfare, an influential book written in 1920 by the economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, who was professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University from 1908 to 1943 (I had to look him up).

“Well, I studied economics at Cambridge,” responded Dr Singh.

“It was the very famous Cambridge economist A.C. Pigou who said that when we study economics our impulse is not the philosopher’s impulse — ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ — but for the healing that knowledge will help to bring. I have an opportunity to use my knowledge to soften the harsh edges of extreme poverty in India.”

We all hope he succeeds.

First love

Although last year’s honorary degree ceremony at Oxford for Manmohan Singh was dignified, too, although perhaps not quite as elaborate, the Prime Minister’s Cambridge address did clear up the question of which university he considered his real alma mater.

After getting his degree at Cambridge, he went to Nuffield College, Oxford, to do his PhD. “In many important ways, the University of Cambridge made me,” he acknowledged in his Cambridge speech. He pointed out: “I am one of the fortunate few to have been embraced by Britain’s two oldest universities.” He admitted: “The memories of my days in Cambridge are deep.”

(At the after-ceremony party, he loved mingling with the Indian students, putting an arm round them and asking each one in turn, “What are you studying'”)

He emphasised in his speech: “Before I went to the other place by the Isis, I saw the River Cam when I came up to study for my Economics Tripos at St John’s. In the beginning was St John’s.”

If there was any doubt, the matter is now settled.

Swraj Paul with Gordon Brown; Annanya Sarin (above)

A global India

Among the guests in Cambridge was Lord Swraj Paul, who had just been installed as Chancellor of Westminster University (his guest was his mate Gordon Brown) and Lord Karan Bilimoria of Cobra Beer. Also present was Sunil Mittal, the super-slick Bharti chairman and managing director who had come for the India-UK Economic Summit held in London on the previous day.

“I can talk to you about anything,” he said generously, “except Tesco.”

Very keen to ensure that the small vegetable and fish vendors outside our home in Belgachia Villa are not put out of business, I expressed reservations about whether the entry of western supermarkets was in India’s interest — “I am yet to be convinced”.

Mittal was honest: “There will be pain. Supermarkets are inevitable. Tata’s and others are going to do it so we might as well have the best from the West, not only Indian ones.”

One point struck home last week in India. “Multinational” — or “MNC” — is no longer a dirty word in India, not least because the country itself is now producing so many global giants. One, Tata Steel, is in talks with Corus (formerly British Steel), about a possible £5 billion takeover. Ironically, Corus’s glam sham head of corporate communications, Annanya Sarin, was previously Lakshmi Mittal’s press officer. If she is lucky, she may end up working for Tata Steel.

Tittle tattle

One woman whom I wouldn’t like to meet alone in a dark lane at night is Supriya Banerji, who has ticked me off in no uncertain terms for not reporting the MOU just signed between the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (CfEL), Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, and the Confederation of Indian Industry aimed at forging bonds between the academic and business worlds (a similar agreement has also been signed with Imperial College, London).

The scary Supriya, formerly headmistress, CII, London, is now the CII’s policy head division in Delhi.

I joke, of course. All who know Supriya are very fond of her. India’s good luck is that it is blessed with super-efficient women like Supriya. The honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE) awarded to Supriya by HM the Queen for her “outstanding contribution to co-operation between Indian and British business” is richly deserved.

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