GBF was a foolhardy venture on all counts. The most ambitious and outlandish ideas were attempted, and it was by sheer quirk of fate that most materialised, and materialised well. One such idea was to invite ministers to GBF – to deliver keynote addresses, meet entrepreneurs and policy experts, answer questions, watch showcases and demonstrations, and offer support to GBF on a continual basis. The idea started off as a plan to invite 3-4 ministers. The target changed to 6 when the initial going looked easy. It then became an ambitious 9 when the initial confirmations started flowing in thick and fast. And then, the Election Commission of India dropped a bombshell. It announced the Bihar elections in the middle of GBF. Smriti Irani, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Ravishankar Prasad and JP Nadda had to drop out. The plotters and planners of GBF went into re-design mode. Let’s add Nitin Gadkari. Let’s drop Venkaiah Naidu. Let’s re-invite Jayant Sinha. And so on. It was not clear if they were talking about high profile ministers or shuffling cards in a deck. Reshuffling actually. Or maybe re-reshuffling. Everyday was an exercise in firming up schedules of new ministers and then junking the plans next day and firming up something else. They changed names, they changed times, they changed topics, they changed everything – maybe to prove the point that they at GBF are agents of change. This was the mother of all reshuffles and the final trump cards that they rolled out (in chronological appearance at GBF) were Manohar Parrikar, Jayant Sinha, Prakash Javadekar, Suresh Prabhu, Piyush Goyal and Nitin Gadkari. Many have penned some memorable GBF anecdotes for this issue and we’re sure we’ll have more for you in future issues, but for anecdotes related to ministers, we asked Bakul Desai to do the honours. As one who often bites more than he can chew, hear in his own words how he got bitten (and beaten) in the process of attempting something of “cabinet” proportions.
Disclaimer requested from Bakul: These anecdotes are intended to poke light-heated fun at ministers and does not take away our gratitude to them for having graced GBF and for bringing it up to the standard that they did.
Date: 15th October, 2015
Time: 5:40pm, less than 24 hours before GBF
Place: Plush precincts of Research Centre Imarat at Hyderabad.
I was there because the Honourable Raksha Mantri of India, Manohar Parrikar, had surprised me with a call just 2 hours afore that I should meet him there. So there I was with Manu (after all, that’s what we still call him, the RM status came later), minutes after he had inaugurated a plush admin block and was inspecting missile components that were put on display for him.
Manu has been a huge support for GBF, right from its conceptualisation phase, and it was at his insistence that we were getting a star-studded galaxy of ministers and global experts. GBF was about to open to a full house within 24 hours, thanks to some 5-6 meetings that we had with Manu to firm up all arrangements.
Hence, in between inspecting missile components, I was briefing Manu about the ministers who had confirmed, their ETA in Goa, and arrangements being made for their pick-up and briefing. Local MP of Chevella constituency Vishweshwar Reddy (2nd richest MP in India with declared assets of 528 crores) was within earshot and he pulled me aside to ask me how many events we were talking about. I told him that we were talking about just one GBF starting next day. Vish’s eyes opened wide in amazement. His wife, Sangita Reddy, was the MD of Apollo Hospitals and was one of our GBF patrons, but alas, was not able to make it due to a schedule conflict. Vish asked again. Was I sure that 6 ministers were coming for one event? When I nodded in the affirmative, Vish remarked that so many ministers may not have been present at Amit Shah’s son’s wedding. Manu turned and ssh-edVish. Who wants a panga with Amit Shah?
But Manu had more to speak with me and his flight to Bangalore was to take off in half an hour and the airport was 15 minutes away. So Manu bundled me in his bulletproof Scorpio provided by the Telangana Government and as we raced to the airport, Manu asked me an elementary question “What do I have to do at GBF?” This question hit me like a slap. We were all so GBF-ed out, we had forgotten to share plans with those who were to play them. It was like calling Shah Rukh Khan to a shoot without giving him the script in advance. And the worst part was that I didn’t know myself what Manu had to do. We were all practicing management mantras and the program was “decentralised” to a program committee who in turn had sublet the job to SIG heads. But I had to answer Manu. So I told him that apart from delivering a keynote “at some time” on Saturday, we also wanted him to participate in NDTV’s “The Big Fight”. Manu’s reaction was instantaneous.
“Are you calling H3 guys to GBF?”
Was I sure that 6 ministers were coming for one event? When I nodded in the affirmative, Vish remarked that so many ministers may not have been present at Amit Shah’s son’s wedding.
Oops…I had forgotten that a big fight was always associated with some “cultural exchanges” indulged in between inmates of H3 and H4 from their terraces and in the dead of the night. So I told Manu that the CEO of NDTV,Vikram Chandra, is the anchor of a popular Saturday night show titled “The Big Fight” and Vikram was breaking from covering the Bihar elections and flying down to Goa from Patna for a day to do this special edition of the Big Fight. This would also be the first Big Fight episode that would be shot in Goa and outside the studio. Manu’s next question to me was a tighter slap than before. Why did I assume that Manu would be OK to participate in a big fight? How did I send my confirmation to NDTV without cross-checking with him?
While I fumbled for answers, Manu said that he will do that fight/shight show as long as he does not have to perform in a standing position. Jo bhibolnahai, baithkeboloonga. That was a relief. I was pretty sure we could fix that small detail with Vikram. (And that’s how it turned out. We didn’t have to ask.Vikram changed the format from standing to sitting positions on his own accord.) And Manu’s last question had me struggling for answers. Just as it used to happen during the endsems at IIT.
It was like calling Shah Rukh Khan to a shoot without giving him the script in advance.
“Who are the other panellists on the Big Fight?”
Aah….hmmmm…. we will have Phil Shaw from Lockheed Martin and some gora from Northrop Gunman…aisakuch defence company haina US mein? …and Prakash Shukla from Mahindras and some other guys from L&T and Bharat Forge and some Prof from IIT and some other “defence experts”…I’m not totally sure, I’ll check with our Make-in-India SIG leads and tell you.
Fortunately, we reached the airport at this moment. As we stepped out, Manu’s parting words to me were “Let’s meet in Goa tomorrow. I think I’m going to have a big fight with you. Kaisa kaam karta hai? You should have been in H3.”
PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN PJ
Prakash Javadekar, let’s call him PJ from here onward, was neatly dressed. Yellow kurta and a pink sleeveless tunic to cover it and a good mass of jet black hair to top it. Perfect attire for one who is a Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. He was articulate, fun, witty, jovial and interactive, and I was glad that I had appointed myself in charge of VIP hospitality.
So when I seated myself beside him in the front row, we continued our light-hearted banter when others were speaking. And I was happy and felt privileged when PJ asked to borrow my pen. After scribbling some notes furiously on a paper (he didn’t borrow a paper, for some reason, he carried a few sheets with him, sans the pen), I looked in stupefied horror to see him plant the pen into HIS pocket. The one which was a thin slit in his tunic. My pen was no Mont Blanc. Neither was it a jotter refill. In fact, I do not remember who I swiped it from. So should I let PJ swipe it from me? True, I did not use the pen often enough, it was used mainly to try a Sudoku puzzle on flights.
While I was battling the dilemma about how to recover my prized possession (my flight out of Goa was 2 days away, there would be another Sudoku to attempt), PJ leaned over to say that he wanted to go next as the speaker and could I please request Romesh Wadhwani to speak later. So I scurried to Romesh, seating some 6-7 sofas away. I had to bend while scurrying to avoid irritating the audience behind. Romesh said NO while I leaned before him and as I walked back, still bent, to PJ, PJ sent me back with another appeal that Romesh should condense his speech to 30 minutes. These back-and-forth parleys continued some 5-6 times. I was literally crawling now, back had bent beyond repair and my spine was probably more plastic than elastic. And before the PJ/RW “talks” through the interlocutor (yours truly) could reach fruition, PJ was called onstage and up he went with my pen still in pocket.
I looked in stupefied horror to see him plant the pen into HIS pocket. … My pen was no Mont Blanc. Neither was it a jotter refill. In fact, I do not remember who I swiped it from. So should I let PJ swipe it from me?
I’m not sure, but maybe the clip of my pen must have been visible to the TV cameras of Bloomberg Channel as they televised PJ’s engaging talk. A gold line against a pink backdrop. That’s when I took the boldest decision in my life. My pen was now a celebrity. On national TV. For a change, it did not embarrass me by running out of ink. (Had that happened, PJ may not have remembered to talk about his conversation with a Peruvian minister.)The pen had to come home to mama, no doubt about this. My back was aching, thanks to the fruitless missive PJ had sent me on and maybe I would write to him some day with this pen if I needed a spine replacement.
While signing off, PJ got into the car and waved us all bye. I counted to 10 and then told PJ that I had a request. He stopped rolling up the glass, in fact he rolled it down again and asked me what my request was. After a pause, I told him that I would like to request him to keep my pen with him. I would feel privileged. PJ’s hand shot into his tunic and quickly handed me the pen with some words of profuse apology. Even while I was pretending to not wanting to take the pen back, Pratap Chandnani burst out into uncontrollable laughter and Dinar (Bhatu) Bhatkar laughed and shouted, “Gujjusaala!” He then asked PJ, “Dekha, kaisa gujju hai yeh?” PJ was gracious about this. Maybe, he was wary about his gujju boss in South Block.
THE DERAILED INNOVA
Goa airport was second home to GBF. Around 1000+ GBF bound folks were to pass through its precincts. We had detailed the logistics to an excruciating fault. About flight times, pick-up arrangements, hiring space for a help desk, liaising with the protocol department for VIP handling (never mind that it didn’t work out, that’s a separate story). But we had forgotten that one of our prized attendees was Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, who would obviously opt to arrive by, what else, the Konkan Railway. Hence, he remained unpicked and unmet by a clueless GBF team that did not know where the railway station was. And by way of atonement, we met him early next morning to brief him about GBF and his proposed program. Suresh Shenoy, Pratap Chandnani, Damayanti Bhattacharya and I finally walked into Suresh Prabhu’s suite at 9:10am to pick him for a program that was to start at 9:00am at a venue that was 15 minutes away.
And we started by telling him that we had changed the program beyond belief and he should please stop brandishing the printout which showed something else that we had planned 3 months ago. Fortunately for us, Suresh was exactly as Manu had described him. “Bilkul mere jaisa” is what Manu had said and sure enough, Suresh was simple, down-to-earth, unassuming, flexible and a tad amused at our erratic ways.
But we had forgotten that one of our prized attendees was Railway minister Suresh Prabhu, who would obviously opt to arrive by, what else, the Konkan Railway. Hence, he remained unpicked and unmet by a clueless GBF team that did not know where the railway station was.
Damayanti and I sat in the car which doubled as a pilot car. Suresh Prabhu and the local protocol officer were to follow us. Halfway to the venue, Damayanti’s phone rang and she answered it. At the same time, I called up Shridhar to tell him that we were on the way with Suresh and that Raman or someone from the Infrastructure SIG should be available to receive him, apart from Director Khakhar. While I was speaking, I saw Damayanti say something to our driver Guru. I then saw Guru do a U-turn soon after. While getting U-turned along with Guru and the rest of the car, I saw Suresh Prabhu’s car amble on straight without U-turning. I was still on the phone and I gestured to Damayanti in sign language to ask why Suresh Prabhu’s car was not U-turning with us. Damayanti, also still on her phone, tried to say something in sign language. Clearly, she hadn’t deciphered my sign language question and was either answering a non-question or asking one of her own. (As it turned out, she was trying to ask me, “What are you trying to ask?”)
While we were hurtling away at some 100 kmph on a U-turned trajectory and Suresh was probably hurtling away at 100 kmph in the opposite direction, I motioned to both of us that we stop our calls and try communicating in English.
Why is Suresh’s car not following us? This was my simple question to Damayanti.
Her answer was equally simple. He’s going to the stadium for GBF.
It took me a few seconds to recover. So, Suresh Prabhu was going to GBF. And where were we going? To Arambol Beach? To Bhatinda? To Buenos Aires?
Of course not yaar! We are going to ICG (International Centre Goa).
Aargh…why are we going to ICG?
See, Boss (Deepak Patil) just called to say that Manu has reached the venue and the guys there are not ready with his coffee. They said that coffee will be ready only by 11. So I told Guru to take us to ICG. I’ll ask the kitchen guys to make some coffee that we’ll carry in a thermos.
What followed cannot be reprinted here. I got into expletive mode full blast, first at Damayanti and then at Guru who was not sure how to re-U-turn through the massive divider on the road. Anyway, we raced to the venue, but not fast enough to escort Suresh in. Fortunately, Manu did the honours, but his coffee hadn’t materialised yet. Damayanti, still reeling from my expletives, ran in and did something that got Manu his black coffee and also got Suresh some tea with separate milk, the way he likes it. But I’ll never forget that our car must have been the first Innova in history to get derailed from a road.
Something was definitely amiss on this, the 17th day of October 2015. The erudite, outspoken, extroverted, articulate, energetic, effusive Piyush Goyal arrived in Goa with a wry smile and a gentle nod. No bear hugs and hearty greetings today. Was it the fact that he had flown into Delhi from Jaipur early morning and had flown to Goa within 6 hours and would then fly to Mumbai in 2 hours and would fly back to Delhi after another hour and then fly to Washington DC within another 12 hours? As it turned out, there was something else bothering him. Something that became evident when Piyush started answering in nods and sign language. His throat had gone for a toss. Attempts at speaking were emitting hoarse whispers and making him wince in pain. If anybody wants to know what losing a voice means, he should have sat in the Innova that was being driven by a wannabe Schumacher to take us from the airport to the GBF venue in time.
The voice was so hoarse, that if one could induce Piyush to sing “Yeh nayan dare dare…”, it would have sounded more Hemant Kumar than the original Hemant Kumar himself. He nodded that he knew what GBF is (wish he could speak and tell us what it was, we didn’t know and still do not). He nodded that he came because our very own Manu had told him to. He nodded that he was to speak on energy before an audience who thought they knew better. In between nods, he managed to whisper that if we could organise hot water with honey, loung (cardamom-clove kind of thing…paan lovers may know what it is) and various additives that would alleviate his throat from acute misery for 40 mins, then he would find his voice back to thank us in two words at a minimum. He also whispered “Leave it yaar!” after he saw our incredulous expressions. He then slipped into punching away on his phone. We (We = Shridhar and Bakul) thought that maybe he’s SMSing a recipe to us. Recipe to a concoction that can relieve throats. I tried to recollect an ad jingle that promised to relieve “gale meinkhich-khich”, but advancing years made me mix up Vicks, Halls, Boroline and Erasmic blades. BTW, Piyush also whispered that since he had to travel to Washington DC next day, he did not want to **** his throat any further, so would we please leave him alone to punch on SMS and WhatsApp to his ministry officials?
Attempts at speaking were emitting hoarse whispers and making him wince in pain. If anybody wants to know what losing a voice means, he should have sat in the Innova that was being driven by a wannabe Schumacher to take us from the airport to the GBF venue in time.
So I called Damayanti and Shridhar called Boss. To tell them the same thing. Hot water. Honey. Some loung or something like that. Shridhar also asked for garlic and I asked for any thingamajig that relieves khich-khich. Not sure what Boss said to Shridhar. I know that Damayanti uttered some unparliamentary words that I expunged in my reply to Piyush. But Shridhar and I were unanimous in our responses. “Let’s leave it yaar!” One can whistle for feni in Goa and it’ll flow in a river wherever you are. Honey was viscous and not Goa-friendly on a Saturday.
At the venue, Piyush was greeted by an enthusiastic mob that thrust out visiting cards and handshakes. He smiled affably at everyone but turned to me and held up his little finger to tell me that he needed to use the “restroom”. Sign language was still on and I tried to convey the same to everyone else in sign language that they should politely step away and let him perform some elementary and nominal ablutions. This was a moment of revelation to everyone assembled there. Ministers are like us, they need to pee from time to time. Before Piyush came back, I told junta about his ****ed throat and they quickly changed the format from a “keynote” to “Q&A”. Maybe they banked on the presence of Ashok Saraf in the audience and thought there would be more Q and less A.
This was a moment of revelation to everyone assembled there. Ministers are like us, they need to pee from time to time.
While we walked into the hall and sat in the front row, I saw a surly Damayanti walk towards us and I was sure that she would hurl a glass at me. Just as I ducked from an impending missile, Damayanti parked the glass before Piyush and asked him if it was OK. I saw the contents of the glass. Pale-brownish and a wee bit amber in colour. Looked like an exotic mocktail served in Hyatts and Hilton. It had all the ingredients that Piyush had asked for and also had some more. As Piyush gulped down the glass, Damayanti asked him how it was and Piyush circled his thumb and index finger to pronounce that it was mast. He then motioned to me to deliver him another glass as he walked up to the stage and answer questions from argumentative IITians. The next glass was delivered to him on stage and in full glory of TV cameras.
This was a crowning moment for IITians who peddled themselves as innovation merchants and champion jugaadus. I ran into the kitchen to sample this innovative Piyushcolada. It was exquisite and gave a run for money to Goanfeni. My voice was not gone, but this Piyushcolada gave me a louder voice to remind Piyush to thank us when he was departing. Still trying to crack 2 riddles. What is loung? What is GBF?
TO TEA OR NOT TO TEA
Nitin Gadkari came to the GBF venue in a classic photo-finish moment. Had he arrived even 5 minutes later than he did, many of us would be writing these memoirs from a prison cell. Let me narrate the pertinent background first. CNBC’s Shireen Bhan was to do a live show with 3 ministers in conversation with eminent alumni. Jayant Sinha and Prakash Javadekar had already left. Manu was there of course for us. Suresh Prabhu wanted to leave by 4pm. Piyush Goyal would come by 1:45pm and leave by 3:30pm. Nitin Gadkari’s special aircraft from Nagpur would bring him in by around 4pm. Hence, we decided to do the show at 2pm. With Manu, Suresh and Piyush. But a hysterical Jaya Joshi came running to me to say that Shireen was landing at 1:30pm and would not be able to start the show till 3:30pm. So can I please request all the ministers to change their itineraries? Why doesn’t Shireen make do with 2 ministers? It’s still one more than she’s ever done before, right? Right, but the problem was that Jaya had promised her 3 and was afraid that Shireen would back off if we didn’t give her 3. This was a problem of over hype. GBF was being branded as a forum that wholesaled in ministers and every channel tried to demand 3-4 apiece.
GBF was being branded as a forum that wholesaled in ministers and every channel tried to demand 3-4 apiece.
One lesson I’ve learnt over my years volunteering for IITBAA – you can try logic with anyone, but not with a distraught Jaya. If Jaya thinks ministers should be moved around on the screen like they do in video games, move them around. Hence, we ended with a situation where Shridhar was yet again typing out schedule changes and we repositioned the event to 3:30pm. And I prayed that Suresh could be persuaded to hang in till 4:30pm, Piyush would stretch his departure till 3:50pm and Nitin Gadkari’s pilot would bhagao the aircraft and get him in just as Piyush was exiting. That way, we would give Shireen her 3 ministers (2 variable and 2 constant) and Jaya, her demand.
If you give a complicated assignment to IITians, they’ll do that perfectly. But yes, we suck at simple things.
While I escorted Piyush away from the Shireen Bhan show to his departing car, I was relieved to see Raj Nair rushing in Nitin Gadkari. One was rushing out, the other was rushing in. Had there not been a divider in the stadium roads, they would have collided. So with relief, I escorted Nitin Gadkari upto the stage to sit where Piyush sat and answer questions from Shireen. Of course, Nitin was not supposed to speak in the show, so we hadn’t told him about it, but I did manage to slip in a word after he was seated and a question was being asked of him.
Nitin Gadkari was stellar. He stood out as a performer. He unveiled his plans to bring the highway project to 30 km per day. He went to the Environment SIG and spent more than an hour discussing projects and plans with engaged alumni. He then insisted on visiting each and every stall and watch demos, presentations and products. I then called him to the media room to share a tea with some of us. The main purpose was to cajole him to sing later in the evening where our Y-Point Orchestra was to perform. Attempts to induce him to sing failed, but he was happy to have tea, but with just one condition. “Chai garma-garam rehni chahiye, to hi baat banegi.” The challenge did not look so formidable. But I had forgotten that we had been performing badly in the tea/coffee department this whole day. And horror of horrors, the tea came in lukewarm enough for Gadkari to put the cup away in disgust. But he was still smiling and he joked that “lagta hai ki aapke IIT mein chai garam karneki technology perfect nahin hui hai.” This was a fatal body blow. I felt crippled and helpless. But every contestant who gets knocked out in the ring says something while going down. So while going down, I blurted “Piyush Goyal was here sometime ago. He had a bad throat and he wanted hot water with honey, loung, garlic and the works. And we had to cobble it in 10 minutes. And we managed to do that. If you give a complicated assignment to IITians, they’ll do that perfectly. But yes, we suck at simple things. Please give us a more challenging task next time.” Though it was like a “dying declaration”, this rebut seemed to please him and we awoke the next day to the news that Gadkari had pledged Rs. 50 crores for GBF.