Close to the inaugural function of the Bengal Business Summit in Kolkata, members of the ruling Trinamool Congress went into a huddle to discuss what the state government should showcase.
Why not the skyscraper in the heart of Kolkata, asked some. The 62-storey residential tower, the city’s tallest, is called The 42, deriving its name from the address 42B, Chowringhee Road. It was once a heritage building belonging to the Maharaja of Darbhanga, but now a consortium of builders are shaping it up after prolonged court battles. But the idea was dropped, ostensibly because a senior TMC leader said those buying the Rs 20 crore flats were mostly the rich and famous, the list ranging from Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan to Mahendra Singh Dhoni—the Indian skipper is said to have acquired two of the 8,000 square feet flats—and it wasn’t a showcase for the masses. Mumbai-based Hafeez Contractor’s construction firm was to execute the project that has investments from the promoters of Burj Khalifa in Dubai. What’s Bengali about the project, some diehard TMC loyalists argued.
So the state government waited to hear what those attending the Summit had to say and were visibly relieved when the richest Indian, Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, fondly changed the title of the state from West Bengal to Best Bengal and said he would push Jio, his big bucks telecom company that has sent shivers down the spine of its rivals, to every corner of the state. Currently, it is in 1,000 towns and 39,000 villages in the state, servicing a little over 1.2 million customers in the state. A whopping Rs 15,000 crore investment has gone to the state already, Ambani reminded those on the dais and those in the audience.
Ambani, arguably the biggest fish of the Summit, said he would plug another Rs 5,000 crore investment for non-Jio businesses over the next three years—around the time TMC would fight for a third term—in businesses such as petroleum and state-of-the-art electronics manufacturing facilities and consumer devices such as mobile phones, set-top boxes, and other devices.
Ambani wanted the reticent Bengali—a critic, reader and a self-styled intellectual—to turn into an entrepreneur. He said it’s time digital entrepreneurs take birth in villages and small towns, kick-start e-commerce and support agriculture as well as small and medium enterprises.
Rest, the summit remained sandwiched between Baul music, trendy tabla sessions, green chilly rosogollas, nostalgic Tagore and Satyajit Ray, and many, many, many promises that have been flooding the once Great Gateway of the East for a little over four decades. Critics, otherwise vocal in the city, remained silent as to why the steel baron Lakshmi Mittal always lobbied for iron ore mines in next door Jharkhand but never looked at a city where he completed his education—St Xavier’s College—with pride. No one asked Mittal why he ignored for long Kolkata, a city where in 1998 he hosted a fairytale pre-nuptial concert for his son Aditya at the lawns of the expansive Victoria Memorial and flew in—virtually—the entire Bollywood for a most un-Victorian activity. And now, Mittal, also on the dais flanking the white-robed Chief Minister, virtually called Kolkata his love, and said he would definitely do something. His hypocrisy was astounding.
He talked of some investment in the near future. The last two words, for many in the audience, was indeed prophetic and reminded many of the countless London junkets of the poker-faced Left Front CM Jyoti Basu and mindless, useless memoranda of understanding (MoUs) signed by his trusted industry minister, Somnath Chatterjee.
Rest, the Summit was a bagful of promises, not even a fistful of cash.
The absence of Cabinet ministers from Delhi was a big miss. Newspapers reported how Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari stayed away because of bitter clashes between members of BJP and TMC. The CM did not explain how she would carry out the planned, big buck projects without support from the Centre.
There were promises from Sajjan Jindal of JSW Steel, Kishor Biyani of Future group, Uday Kotak, the head of Kotak group and Sanjiv Goenka, chairman of RP-Sanjiv Goenka group and Pranav Adani of Adani Wilmar. On paper, the state secured investment commitments of over Rs 219,000 crore. The CM said 50% of the commitments made in the 2017 were underway and that these were fresh proposals. On paper, West Bengal had drawn investment commitments of Rs 235,000 crore in 2017, more than Rs 250,000 crore in 2016 and Rs 243,000 crore in 2015.
A few days later, in the same city, social reformer Bindeshwar Pathak got thinkers huddled inside a five-star hotel and exhorted them to find ways to help reform the lives of hapless women in the Sunderbans whose husbands were killed, possibly eaten, by man-eater Royal Bengal tigers. Many came, discussed the continuing crisis and found some ways to join hands. Work, everyone was assured, would start soon.
Almost a decade after the Tatas exited their car plant from Bengal, the impoverished state needs projects off the ground, not in files.
Banerjee is hopeful. She may not have the ears of the Centre, but managed to get a person whose words are widely considered to be important for the government. She is waiting for Ambani’s magic wand to work wonders for her state. Her eyes are on the next general elections, she needs to increase her presence in Parliament, also her stature in India. Even her harshest critic would agree that she would achieve both.
But investments in Bengal? Well, that’s a billion dollar question for Banerjee, and her state.