20 September 2015 10:24:49 IST

Yet another Global Investors’ Meet: yawn or rejoice?

While there is little to show for in terms of tangibles, at least we can look forward to better looking cities

While digital advertising display boards have popped up at international airports such as Heathrow and Abu Dhabi, announcing the upcoming Global Investors’ Meet in Chennai, hoardings, which most consider to be an eyesore in Tamil Nadu’s capital are being pulled down in an attempt to spruce up the city. Apart from this, zebra crossings are being repainted and some 55-odd roads are being re-laid .

Such fanfare leads one to wonder, though: don’t ordinary citizens deserve good roads and unobstructed views?

That said, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, her ministers and the rest from the AIADMK party are leaving no stone unturned to make sure they put up a good show, spending up to Rs 100 crore in preparation alone.

Well, there is a lot at stake and the timing is crucial.

In July this year, Jayalalithaa was sworn in as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, 10 months after a trial court in Karnataka had convicted her in the disproportionate assets case.

The party made sure she won by a record margin in the by-elections. She wants to maintain the momentum. Though the Meet was planned for August, it was postponed, say reports, to ensure a good turnout of corporate leaders and record signing of MoUs.

In another eight months the State will elect a new government. A successful ‘meet’ can become a showstopper in her campaign, highlighting the leader’s ability to draw industrialists, their money and generate lakhs of jobs for the skilled but unemployed youth. For these promises to see fruition, however, the people need to elect her and vote for her party; because if the Opposition comes to power, surely the projects are doomed.

Compelling reason to vote her into power again, isn’t it?

If the Chief Minister is able to get the cream of India Inc to share the dais with her on September 9, and if by the end of the next day, her officials have signed a record number of proposals that promise investments worth lakhs of crores, the investor meet would have served its purpose.

City and personal branding

The timing of such a meet is critical. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the first Vibrant Gujarat: Global Investors’ Summit in 2003, the then Chief Minister was in the process of rebranding himself and the State. It was just a year after the Godhra riots and Modi needed something that could replace the images of rioting, death and burning vehicles that were splashed across newspapers and TV channels all over the country. Vibrant Gujarat was perfect to do the job. And it did.

The first Vibrant Gujarat was the beginning of the remaking of Modi.

He deftly used the stage to reinvent himself as a ‘development’ messiah, who could provide wide roads, electricity, water and jobs for all. Years later, in the 2014 General Elections, the-Chief Minister-turned-candidate-for-Prime Minister would use the Gujarat model to appeal to the rest of his countrymen, who were reeling under a dormant, confused and corruption-ridden Congress government.

Modi won by a record margin.

While the Prime Minister was the first to understand the true potential of these investors meets, he was not the pioneer. In 1996, Maharashtra is said to have hosted the first of its kind under the then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena. Later, Karnataka’s suave Chief Minister SM Krishna would take the lead in marketing it. In 2000, the southern State hosted its first global meet for investors and netted around Rs 5,000 crore in investment proposals. Though a commendable amount, it was peanuts when compared to the commitments worth Rs 66,000 crore that Modi managed in the first Vibrant Gujarat in 2003.

Since then, almost every Chief Minister in the country, including Modi’s bête noire Nitish Kumar of Bihar; and competitor-turned-friend Mamata Bannerjee of West Bengal, have tried to milk the potential of this platform.

But what about the conversion of these proposals into projects on the ground? Well, that’s another story.

Conversion? Who cares

As on January 2015, when the latest round of the Vibrant Gujarat summit was held, the State has been promised investments worth Rs 75 lakh crore in the last 12 years. The 2015 edition scored the best, ensuring proposals worth Rs 25 lakh crore, bettering the score of the 2011 Vibrant Gujarat, which got Rs 20 lakh crore in commitments.

How many of these investments yield tangibles?

It is a question that no one has an answer to.

According to an article on Rediff.com , estimates on the execution or completion of projects or investments are unavailable. But many have hazarded a guess. Congress leaders have alleged that Gujarat’s record of converting these commitments into actual investments on the ground is as low as 15 per cent. The story is similar in other States. A Business Standard report of 2012 quotes a Karnataka minister telling the members of the State’s Legislative Assembly that of the 389 projects worth Rs 3.92 lakh crore that were cleared in the 2010 Global Investors Meet, “the actual investment flow into the State so far has been less than 6 per cent.”

It’s safe to assume that one can expect a similar score from the rest of the governments.

Realistically, it would be foolhardy to expect all of these MoUs to see the light of day, that too within a year or two of them being signed. But this concession doesn’t save the poor performance of the State governments. A senior executive of a major steel company in the country once told me that it was a near impossible task to actually execute the MoUs it has been signing across the country. The MoUs are more to keep the political leaders in good humour.

In the end, these global investors meets, as we now realise, are more of a PR exercise.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is planning a Global Investors Meet in February 2016. Should we assume that this, like the others, will be another case of counting our chickens before they hatch? I guess we would, like always, have to wait and watch.

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