Monday, 30th October 2017

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Eye on England

There is no other way to put it but to be honest: as far as Britain's large and influential Bengali population is concerned, Mamata Banerjee has been a disappointment. Hopes that she would bring jobs and prosperity to Bengal as chief minister after three decades of Marxist misrule have not been realised.

  • Published 12.07.15

Bengal boys mount rescue mission

Batting for business: Chandrajit Banerjee (left) and Sumit Mazumder, CII’s director-general and president respectively

There is no other way to put it but to be honest: as far as Britain's large and influential Bengali population is concerned, Mamata Banerjee has been a disappointment. Hopes that she would bring jobs and prosperity to Bengal as chief minister after three decades of Marxist misrule have not been realised.

However, now that she is coming to London on July 27 with a business delegation that includes Sumit Mazumder, the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, there is just a chance that Bengal could be rescued.

A heavyweight CII team held a substantive annual conference in London last week with the Confederation of British Industry to discuss "the future of UK-India economic relations".

Mazumder, chairman and managing director of TIL Ltd, which manufactures material handling equipment and has plants in Bengal and elsewhere in India, inspires confidence.

"I am the CII president - this year I look at the national interest but in my heart Bengal is always there - you can't take Bengal away from me," he assures me.

Mamata's mission to London could usher in a brighter future for Bengal (so long as there are no tantrums during the trip and the ground work is prepared thoroughly).

There are many opportunities for UK-Bengal collaboration in infrastructure and R&D, says Mazumder, who speaks well of Mamata. "The Singur thing was an unfortunate thing - now it's history... the current chief minister and her team recognise without a doubt that without industry they cannot move forward. So she has dramatically changed, become pro-industry. She took a delegation to Singapore, which was a great success. She is now talking to the industrialists all the time."

Mazumder adds that a key British player, Patricia Hewitt, chair of the UK India-Business Council, "was in Bengal when we had the Bengal Global Business Summit. She was very happy with what she saw - and she invited Mamata and that is why she is coming."

I hope David Cameron meets Mamata and repeats what Margaret Thatcher said after meeting Mikhail Gorbachev: "This is a leader with whom we can do business."

Self harming

In limbo: Shuchita Sonalika

Not that my approval matters very much but Sushma Swaraj has my blessings if the external affairs minister wishes to take up Shuchita Sonalika's visa problem with the British high commissioner in Delhi, Sir James Bevan.

Basically, the Home Office in London is refusing to regularise Shuchita's visa and would, in fact, like to kick her out of the UK.

"We are quite disturbed about this," admitted Chandrajit Banerjee, director-general of the CII.

The Home Office's attitude is self-harming since Shuchita has been transferred from the US to London by the Confederation of Indian Industry to succeed the previous incumbent, Gunveena Chadha, as director and head of its UK office.

Investment from India - which Shuchita is promoting - is hugely beneficial for Britain because some 800 Indian companies have created 1,10,000 new jobs in Britain.

What is Kumar Iyer, British deputy high commissioner in Mumbai who attended last week's London summit, doing about Shuchita's visa, or for that matter, Sir James and his opposite number, Ranjan Mathai?

They may all have to be summoned to the headmaster's study after class.

Dancing doctor

Mercurial: Akram Khan (left) with Royona Mitra

One time Calcutta girl and now UK academic Dr Royona Mitra has just published a book on Akram Khan, about whom I have good news.

Britain's most celebrated contemporary Kathak dancer, who was last in Calcutta in September 2012, is returning to the city during a tour of India in November.

This time he is coming with a production called Torobaka , which I saw last week at Sadler's Wells in London (Akram's parents, Mosharaf and Anwa-ra Khan, were there, too, as was Royona).

The work is a duet, almost a clash between two cultures represented by Akram (born into a Bangladeshi family in south London in 1974) and a Spanish flamenco dancer, Israel Galván (born 1973 in Seville).

Torobaka combines two Spanish words - toro (bull) and baka (cow).

Royona, who lived in Calcutta till the age of 18, trained in Kathak as a little girl with the Dancers' Guild. After coming to the UK, she did her first degree at Plymouth, her MA at Royal Holloway in London and taught for six years at Wolverhampton before returning to Royal Holloway to do her PhD - on Akram.

Her book, Akram Khan: Dancing New Interculturalism (Palgrave Macmillan; £55), "is a significant rewrite of the PhD," she says.

Royona, who is now a lecturer in theatre at Brunel University, recalls how her life changed when she saw Akram for the first time 15 years ago: "He was mercurial."

Party piece

Some 800 people were invited last Sunday to the annual tea party which Lord Swraj Paul hosts in Regent's Park in memory of his daughter, Ambika.

Guests included the vice-chancellor of Wolverhampton, Prof. Geoff Layer, who announced that the university (where Swraj has been chancellor since 1998 and to which the Caparo chairman has donated £1m), was naming its students' activities centre after Ambika.

Since the university's business development school is being named after Lord Swraj Paul, I think this is probably the first time there have been father-daughter buildings at a UK university.

Full Marx

Lord Swraj Paul introduces me to the veteran Observer journalist, William Keegan, who reveals he and others are writing spoof letters from beyond the grave to Lord Meghnad Desai to mark the "Marxist" economist's 75th birthday on July 10.

Keegan is responsible for the missive from Karl Marx, who expresses regret at Meghnad's direction of travel: "I should like to thank you for your good work as one of the leading scholars of what has come to be known as Marxism, although I have to say that it saddens me the way you have moved from a left-wing position to one where you sing the praises of globalised capitalism... Maynard Keynes was telling me in the bar the other day - over a glass of Leoville Poyferre 1998; we have a good cellar up here - that you have been displaying worrying signs of departing from the Keynesian faith."

From the ever affable Meghnad, my near neighbour in London, I have the following message: "Seventy five is longer than Marx or Keynes or even Nehru scored. I hope to stay active, write books, make speeches and sing songs, the last in private. And enjoy life to the full."

Tittle tattle

Love story: Anita and Martin Pfaff on their wedding day

Another noteworthy anniversary fell on July 5, when Netaji Subhas Bose's only child, Anita Pfaff, and her professor husband, Dr Martin Pfaff, both economists and veteran Social Democratic Party leaders, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at their home in Augsburg, in Bavaria, Germany.

The couple were both from Vienna but met in India in 1961 and married in Vienna on July 5, 1965. The couple (who now have two sons and a daughter and several grandchildren) were made to wait by Netaji's wife, Emilie Schenkl, who insisted Martin complete his PhD before getting married.

Martin signed a copy of his just published autobiography, Grenzganger (Cross Border Commuter): "This book will tell you how I became a jamai to India's noblest hero."