As we stand at the cusp of the next Gen­eral Elec­tions, it is once again time to cel­e­brate the qual­i­ties that make democ­racy the most vi­brant po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in the world. These qual­i­ties are free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion, and the abil­ity of lead­ers with dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies to de­bate in full pub­lic view. Over the last 13 years, the In­dia To­day Con­clave has pro­vided a plat­form for the free and fair ex­change of ideas be­tween so­cial thinkers, in­tel­lec­tu­als and politi­cians you would not nor­mally find on the same stage. The Con­clave has emerged as the pre­mier fes­ti­val of thoughts, ideas and so­lu­tions in this part of the world. It has be­come a fo­rum that en­cour­ages di­a­logue, seeks an­swers from those in power, and ques­tions those who are promis­ing change.

The coun­try has been in a state of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion for too long. My sense is that there is a deep yearn­ing amongst the people of In­dia to re­alise its im­mense po­ten­tial. Their as­pi­ra­tions are strain­ing at the leash. They want more cap­i­tal, more en­ergy, more ed­u­ca­tion, more op­por­tu­nity, trans­par­ent and cor­rup­tion-free gov­er­nance, and above all, de­ci­sive and hon­est lead­er­ship. With elec­tions round the cor­ner and with all this on the minds of ev­ery­one, quite ap­pro­pri­ately, we chose Win­ning as the over­ar­ch­ing theme of the 13th In­dia To­day Con­clave.

Over two days, the Con­clave hosted 49 speak­ers in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned sci­en­tists, ac­tivists, econ­o­mists, en­trepreneurs, in­dus­tri­al­ists, in­tel­lec­tu­als, ac­tors and au­thors. The pro­gramme fea­tured 16 top politi­cians from across re­gions and from all ma­jor par­ties. In­evitably, just as in the elec­toral cam­paign, the po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions cen­tred around Gu­jarat Chief Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. Is Gu­jarat’s eco­nomic progress for real? Can its model of de­vel­op­ment work across In­dia? Can Modi be ab­solved of the 2002 ri­ots? How demo­cratic will he be? These are some of the main ques­tions that were hotly de­bated in the po­lit­i­cal ses­sions.

Ev­ery year, there are what I call ‘Con­clave Mo­ments’. One came with our gala din­ner speaker Arvind Ke­jri­wal, the in­stant po­lit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non and leader of AAP. He had spent a good hour ful­mi­nat­ing against Modi and Congress. Dur­ing the au­di­ence Q&A, a guest got up and said that even if she ac­cepted that the two other par­ties were no good, would Ke­jri­wal be will­ing to say he’d be prime min­is­ter if she voted for his party? A flum­moxed Ke­jri­wal, much to my sur­prise, said af­ter much prod­ding: “There are 121 crore people in In­dia, we will have a leader… I am not in the PM race.” Not ex­actly an an­swer to get you votes.

Be­sides pol­i­tics, the Con­clave al­ways has a dose of In­dia’s other pas­sion: Bol­ly­wood. This year had its crème de la crème. The Con­clave fea­tured the leg­endary ac­tor Amitabh Bachchan, the hit-pro­duc­ing hero Sal­man Khan, and show­cased woman power in the form of the block­buster ex­press Deepika Padukone and the supremely tal­ented Kalki Koech­lin. The Con­clave cre­ated a huge buzz in the vir­tual world by reg­is­ter­ing 500 mil­lion Twit­ter im­pres­sions with the hash­tag #Con­clave14.

But it was Sal­man and a for­eigner who cre­ated an­other ‘Con­clave Mo­ment’. We had a ses­sion on Tem­ples vs Toi­lets for which we had in­vited Jack Sim, an ebul­lient Sin­ga­porean who is pres­i­dent of the World Toi­let Or­gan­i­sa­tion. He has made it his life’s mis­sion to im­prove san­i­ta­tion by build­ing toi­lets in homes. I felt ashamed that a for­eigner had to re­mind us that 60 per cent In­di­ans defe­cate in the open. At the end of Sal­man’s ses­sion, a spon­ta­neous ef­fort to raise money for toi­lets ended with him of­fer­ing to do­nate money for 100 toi­lets and rais­ing money for 600 more from the au­di­ence. A good prece­dent of at­tach­ing a cause to the Con­clave. Also a grim re­minder to who­ever comes to power in May that these are the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems which have to be solved if In­dia is to progress.


(Aroon Purie)

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