Chief minister: Do you have any question to ask? But you must be hungry by now.
Calcutta, Nov. 9: Chief minister Mamata Banerjee played the perfect host at the annual get-together with industry captains this evening, ensuring effortlessly that nothing comes between the guests and the sumptuous spread, not even hard-to-digest questions.
No prizes for guessing no one asked questions within the split-second window offered by the chief minister.
The Telegraph, which was not granted access to the interaction at a south Calcutta address, has reproduced the chief minister’s question above on the basis of accounts from several industrialists who attended the social gathering.
“Are you mad?” a city-based executive retorted when a reporter asked him why he let go of an opportunity to ask questions. He said that unlike last year, he had the feeling that uncomfortable questions would not be tolerated. “And I refrained from asking anything,” he added.
Another industrialist said that the silence of the business community simply mirrored the elephant in the room: straitjacketed policy positions that show no signs of moderation.
One participant suggested he came away with the perception that the chief minister was over-exerting herself at damage control after the Haldia mess and the absence of any minister at a Ficci event in the city, which was highlighted by this newspaper earlier this week.
“What is there to ask? We were there to listen to her. And anyway, we know the ground reality,” an investor said.
Another said: “All of us are aware of the problems we face on the ground. But no one dared to say the truth… it was not like that fable about the emperor and the boy who shouted out the truth.”
Last year, some of those in the audience had asked questions on the government’s hands-off land policy and the administration’s lack of response to problems faced by industry.
Today, the tone was set much before evening when industries minister Partha Chatterjee replayed the hands-off policy to villagers from Birbhum who wanted the government to mediate after a clash.
The Dubrajpur issue has become a case study of the government’s stated position. The investor there was pursuing the direct-purchase policy but when trouble erupted, the government blamed local police and refused to intervene, raising fundamental questions on who will mediate in such law-and-order situations if the state remains a spectator.
“But even then she should have taken some questions at the closed-door meet. But the chance went a-begging,” said an industrialist.
On warm gestures, the government was not found lacking. “Chatterjee was at the gate, personally receiving the guests. The CM asked us individually if we were comfortable. We don’t get such access in many states to the seat of power. Moreover, there was a great spread,” said another industrialist.
But there was a note of regret, too. “I think they knew the limitations of the government and were trying to toil extra hard to make up. I felt bad,” said a businessman.
Before tucking into the fare that included fish fry, roast mutton, chicken kebabs, lady kini, kamala bhog and choco fudge, the industrialists spent more than an hour with the chief minister, flanked by Chatterjee, finance minister Amit Mitra and chief secretary Sanjay Mitra.
Mamata listed bringing peace to Jungle Mahal and Darjeeling and checking bandhs as her big achievements.
She asked the industrialists not to listen to a section of the media spreading canards against her government and assured them that the state was on the highway of prosperity.
Mamata asked the industrialists to get in touch with her directly in case of any problem and promised to provide a direct number soon. “We will give you a number. You just wait. You all can speak to me or the chief secretary,” she said.
The chief minister also asked industry not to pay any money to get any job done.
However, she iterated the government’s hands-off policy on land. “We will not forcibly acquire land, but land will not be an issue. We have already given relaxation to hold ceiling-excess land by amending the rules of 14Y,” Mamata said, adding that the state has created a land bank.
The chief minister told the industrialists that the government was coming up with a new industrial policy.
She did allow some prominent industrialists like Sanjiv Goenka, C.K. Dhanuka, Sanjay Budhia and Bipin Vohra to comment in between her speech. They complimented the chief minister on her achievements and vowed to remain committed to Bengal.
Those who went on record were not miserly in their praise. “I would call it a very reassuring and a very recharging meeting,” said Sanjay Budhia of the Patton group.
Harsh Neotia said: “This provided a good opportunity to talk to her. She has given her assurance and support….”
Sanjiv Goenka said: “I have invested here. The environment is good.”
The presence of at least one young member from a family that owns AMRI was not lost on the audience.
Some relatively low-profile members of the prominent business community, who had panicked after the crackdown that followed the hospital fire, said they felt a balm was applied to the wounds. “This was a meeting that acted like a balm. We all know that she is here to stay and the fear in the community was growing that doing business in Bengal would become almost impossible. Writers’ had become off-limits for us,” one person said.
However, perhaps for want of anything more solid to chew on, food remained the overriding theme. Trinamul tweeter-in-chief Derek ’Brien tweeted: “Bengal Inc spent a first class evening with CM. On the menu: solid corporate content, positive vibes, warm camaraderie... and good food.”
Bengal Inc must be trying hard to digest that, wondering if industry needs to go to a chief minister’s do to relish good food and little else.