HOW THE EAST WAS WON
FIREWORKS OF THE MIND AND A KINDLING OF THE SPIRIT LIT UP THE INDIA TODAY CONCLAVE 2018 EAST
From top politicians to industrialists, sports stars to entertainers, India Today Conclave East 2018 brought together the best and the brightest of east India
As the nation enters into poll mode for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the east of India is likely to emerge as a “laboratory of India’s many competing ideas and trends, a microcosm of both constructive and destructive spirits”. This central theme, as articulated by India Today Group Chairman and Editorin-Chief Aroon Purie, manifested itself in the debates and discussions spanning 22 riveting sessions at the India Today Conclave East in Kolkata on October 5 and 6.
The chief ministers of Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, top politicians, industrialists, sports stars, filmmakers, actors and musicians attended the conclave, talking about their idea of India and their role in the making of it. The conclave had a most inspiring beginning, with three lady sports icons— Asian heptathlon gold medal winner Swapna Barman, former India women’s cricket team captain Jhulan Goswami and Indian hockey team captain Rani Ram-
pal—recounting incredible stories of endurance, grit and “golden moments” in their journey to the top. “I have remained the same, only people have now started seeing me differently,” said Barman.
NETAS BEYOND POLITICS
The conclave platform transformed into a veritable battleground for 2019 with rhetorical duels even as Adele’s song Skyfall played in the background. The session, ‘Bengal Tiger and 2019: Will it Roar?’, had BJP Rajya Sabha MP Roopa Ganguly saying how rising communalism in the state wasn’t her party’s fault but was due to the failing law and order situation in Mamata Banerjee’s reign. The Left, represented by Lok Sabha MP Mohammed Salim, didn’t let her party off easily, saying “the politicisation of religion happened only after Modi and Mamata came to power”.
“Religion in a place of worship is okay, but why are you taking it to the streets?” Salim asked Ganguly. Al-
“The Centre is focused on ensuring that projects get done on time. Union minister Nitin Gadkari spent 10 hours clearing snags in our projects” CONRAD SANGMA Meghalaya CM
leging that Mamata was “the greatest invention of the RSS” and that she had sought its help to oust the Left, the Left MP said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mamata were engaged in “a mock WWF fight”.
So is the Left now irrelevant in the state? Former CPI(M) MP Malini Bhattacharya certainly seemed to think that not all is lost. Accusing the BJP and the Trinamool Congress of engaging in “overt competition and covert collusion” in the session ‘Competitive Communalism—Streets on Fire or Rigged Riots?’, she said, “Just because we are not in power doesn’t mean the party has become irrelevant. Ours is a fight for the politics of right and not politics of fear and favouritism.” Assistant professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Garga Chatterjee said the only variable in the Bengal political equation was the BJP and hence it must be blamed for the communal violence in the state. “It’s because there’s a new kid on the block, the BJP, they are the cause,” Chatterjee said.
BJP state vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar attacked the Trinamool for its doublespeak, “Mamata Banerjee blames the BJPruled UP and Maharashtra government if there’s communal violence, but when it happens in Bengal, they blame it on outside influences, specifically the BJP bringing in outsiders. The government and chief minister should reply.”
The sessions, ‘Left or Right— Which way will Bengal sway?’ and ‘The Saffron Tide and The Great Eastern Hope—What Lies Ahead’ took the battle narrative forward. Fresh entrant into the TMC, journalist Chandan Mitra admitted that “the BJP is the alternative for those who don’t want to go with the Trinamool”, he was not ready to accept that Banerjee’s popularity had been dented and that the BJP would get over half of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Bengal,
“I have always tried to shake up the middle class... now I’m trying to shake it up more” DIBAKAR BANERJEE Filmmaker
Women are abused in many ways, verbal, an arm around the waist... being polite, you don’t reply” MOON MOON SEN
as claimed by Mukul Roy, once the TMC second-in-command and now the BJP’s poll strategist in the state.
TIES THAT BIND
On the mahagathbandhan issue, ambiguity reigned, though Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala agreed that regional considerations have to be made in making alliances. He attacked the BJP for “manufacturing majority in backrooms” to which Himanta Biswa Sarma retorted: “When the Congress forms alliances, it’s pure gold, and when BJP does it, it’s manufactured.” The Congress, TMC and Left speakers all stressed on how “2019 will see a fight of ideology”, and chorused the need of coming together on an ideological platform as a prescription to ‘Stemming the Saffron Tide’.
Union MoS for heavy industries, Babul Supriyo, who spoke for ‘The Great Eastern Hope: What Lies Ahead?’ said the BJP was also fighting a battle against “Mamata Banerjee’s ideology of simple living and violent thinking”. Quoting a line from Ram Gopal Varma’s 2005 political thriller Sarkar, he said that “if you want to defeat a sarkar, you must first destroy its ideology”, adding that the time had come to expose the skewed ideology of the ruling TMC in Bengal.
Meanwhile, even as the BJP, Left and Congress tried pulling down Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Best Bengal’ (a phrase coined by Mukesh Ambani) exhortations by pointing to the “anarchic law and order situation” which is “100 per cent extortionist” (or so alleged Ganguly), the business fraternity—Investors Inc—said it was still ready to ‘Bet Big for Bengal’, saying the state was “an outstanding place to do business and invest in”.
Backing up the claim, Sanjiv Goenka, chairman of the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, said he had in the past five years invested Rs 21,000 crore in the state. Later, at the session ‘GST and After’, state finance minister Amit Mitra accused the Modi government of being immature. “There seems to be a lack of trust within the central government, they are taking big decisions without doing their homework,” he said. At a time when states have suffered a revenue loss of Rs 55,400 crore in the past eight months because of a “dysfunctional GST regime”, bringing petroleum products under it “will be another big mess”, Mitra warned.
“In 2009, Mamata supported GST to safeguard the MSMEs, for they brought in the most jobs and were having to face 20 different taxes and an inspector raj. But now, MSMEs, exports, they have all collapsed with a fall in working capital,” Mitra explained. Asked if Mamata would be a consensus choice for prime minister, Mitra, ever the trusted lieutenant, said “she is not interested in the chair” and that she fights for causes. “If India is going down today and the Indian economy is collapsing, she will take it up as a cause to save it,” he said.
THE CITIZENSHIP DEBATE
“We will not allow infiltrators to remain on our soil. Infiltrators will have to go... this is the general rule for every country,” thundered BJP general secretary Ram Madhav in the ‘Citizen Kaun? Insider-Outsider’ session. He reminded the audience how way back in 2005, it was the West Bengal chief minister had raised the issue but now
“If harassment has happened, it’s sad... it’s important that we listen before we judge” ABHISHEK BACHCHAN Actor
“When something like the Tanushree incident happens, you need a thick skin to deal with what will follow” PREITY ZINTA Actor
“the Great Mamata has become the champion of infiltrators”. Meanwhile, as a friendly neighbour “Bangladesh will open its arms and accept our nationals living illegally in India... but India will have to successfully prove their identity”, said Gowhar Rizvi, advisor to Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
“In the past 10 years, India has never taken up illegal immigration with Bangladesh but a time may come when the two countries will talk. We are mature countries and have friendly relations,” he added. “What Myanmar is doing with the Rohingya is genocide. Bangladesh has documented every Rohingya taking refuge with us. When it’s time and the situation improves, Myanmar will have to honour this and take them back.”
“I have remained the same, only people have started seeing me differently” SWAPNA BARMAN Athlete
“We will accept our nationals living here illegally... but India has to prove their identity” GOWHAR RIZVI Special advisor to Bangladesh PM
“The Centre is taking big decisions without doing the homework” AMIT MITRA West Bengal finance minister
NO PUSHING BACK
The chief ministers of Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal—all either from the BJP or in alliance with it—praised Prime Minister Modi for bridging the psychological distance and bringing the Northeastern region closer to the Centre.
Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma, who heads a six-party coalition where the BJP is a minor partner, felt the need of a “pan-Northeast party” representing the eight states to express and voice the aspirations of the region. However, he did admit that there’s a craze for Modi among the youth of the Northeast because they are convinced about his development vision.
“The Centre is focused on ensuring that projects are implemented on time. Union minister Nitin Gadkari spent 10 hours to remove bottlenecks on projects. The Centre has sanctioned Rs 18,000 crore for my state,” Sangma said. N. Biren Singh, the chief minister of Manipur, said he switched to the BJP from the Congress because AICC president Rahul Gandhi refused to pay attention to the reasons responsible for the disintegration of the party. “I met him two or three times. He listened, but did not act,” Singh rued. “The various Congress governments at the Centre have not done enough for the Northeast. Imagine, even after 70 years of independence, Manipur did not have a direct flight to Delhi,” Singh added.
But things are changing fast. “After 2014, Union ministers have visited the state 130 times. PM Modi himself has visited twice since 2014,” said Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu, adding that the main focus was infrastructure development and connectivity. Indeed, as india today chairman Aroon Purie pointed out, the Centre’s efforts had helped bridge the “margins with the mainstream” gap.
The #MeToo moments of actresses Pooja Bhatt and Sreelekha Mitra soon became “we too”, with the audience applauding the bravehearts. “When you speak uncomfortable truths in a world of lies, people tend to turn a deaf ear. I believe that truth does not require PR,” said Bhatt. Sharing her own experiences, Bhatt opined that “Bollywood shows allegiances at weddings and funerals, but not when you are going through fire. I am surprised that people are silencing Tanushree. But for every bully, someone needs to stand up”. Preity Zinta, in her session ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna’, said: “If you cannot support Tanushree, then shut up.”
Abhishek Bachchan felt that “if this has happened, it is very sad... but it’s important that we listen before we judge”. Talking about his two-year hiatus from the industry, Bachchan rubbished talks of nepotism and shared how father Amitabh Bachchan will always leave him a fan boy. That said, remakes of Big B films are a strict “no-no”. As Bachchan Jr put it, he wouldn’t be able “to bring anything new to the table”.
“Bengal always had religious processions. The polarisation started under Mamata’s rule” ROOPA GANGULY BJP MP
“We are also fighting Mamata’s ideology of simple living and violent thinking” BABUL SUPRIYO Union MoS, heavy industries
GOOOAL! Manipur CM N. Biren Singh dribbles the ball before scoring onstage
UP AND AWAY Tripura CM Biplab Kumar Deb takes on a 50 push-up challenge
<< RHYTHM DIVINE Usha Uthup
STRUMMING AWAY Anupam Roy
BLUNT CUT Pooja Bhatt
LEADING LADIES (From left) Rani Rampal, Swapna Barman and Jhulan Goswami
NEW DEALS Randeep S. Surjewala
THROW ’EM OUT Ram Madhav
ALL PRAISE Sanjiv Goenka
PINPOINT Himanta B. Sarma