Despite the presence of renowned economists and entrepreneurs, it was Kiran Bedi, a retired police officer-turned activist, who stole the show at the Eighth Annual Indian Business Conference at the Columbia University last week. Suman Mozumder reports
The day-long conference had such illustrious speakers as economist Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor at Columbia University, Ambassador Nirupama Rao, Manoj Singh, global chief operating officer of Deloitte, Ron Somers, president, US India Business Council, Arvind Panagariya, Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of economics at Columbia and Anoop Singh, director, Asia-pacific, International Monetary Fund, among others.
But Bedi was the only speaker who got a standing ovations from some 100-odd members of the audience, both when she went up to the podium to deliver her 50-minute address and when she ended it with the words that Non-Resident Indians must come together irrespective of which region of India they come from, to campaign for a corruption-free India.
The members of the audience that included young Indian-American professionals, many of whom non-Columbians, listened with rapt attention as Bedi explained the background to the two-year-old anti-corruption movement in India spearheaded by Gandhian Anna Hazare and herself along with a few like-minded individuals and why it is important for NRIs to join that first ever movement.
"We have got to move forward. Ask yourself where do you go (in India) as NRIs. This (corruption) is going to impact your business. Please understand that till India gets proper anti-corruption laws, you cannot have a flourishing business in India. Take it for granted, my dear friends,' she said addressing the mostly young members of the audience.
"Struggle harder and get the message across. Say in one voice that we need to do business (in India) and we want to prosper. We want the corrupt to be caught and we want a better country," she said in an impassioned voice.
A few times during her speech Bedi was interrupted with loud cheers by members of the audience.
A measure of the popularity of Bedi thanks to her stand against corruption in public places and to free the Central Bureau of Investigation of alleged political influence through a 'proper Lokpal Bill' was that she was virtually mobbed by youths, who had been waiting the whole day long to get a glimpse of her and to listen to her, after she ended her speech.
"Tell us how we can help rid corruption in the government India," asked one. "We are all behind you; but just tell us what we can do from so far," asked another.'
Bedi in her address said earlier that without any pressure, current Parliament is not going to pass the bill with the original provisions demanded, not even the diluted bill, "Please brings pressure, all kinds of pressure, monetary pressure, political pressure, community pressure and all that on the Indian government. The Indian associations and councils need to come together and should decide what should be dome and they should tell that 'we want to do business but you have got to set the CBI free," she said.
"Ask whoever (minister) comes here as to why you are keeping CBI under your control. Ask them questions 100 times till they are embarrassed. Friends, please remember if India does not become corruption free, we will not have administrative reforms, not having electoral reforms; in fact no significant reforms at all," she said.
"I urge you to think for yourself as an NRI. What kind of future you want for your motherland? The next few months are vey vital. If we let it go then we will have to wait another five years (before the next general election) and we will have a bigger challenge. Do you want that to happen to have a corruption free India? You have to play a vital role because your seniors did not play their role. We never woke up until about two years to tell people what participatory democracy as against voting democracy is," Bedi said.
"This is an excellent presentation and I thank myself that I came here today," a budding entrepreneur, Suneet Bhutia, said. There were also a bunch of young Indian Americans professions, including two tech-professionals, one each working from Lehman Brothers and Citibank, who sat through the whole day just to listen to Bedi although she was the last keynoters.
"Although we have nothing to do with Columbia and we came after hearing about this program. I think it was really worthwhile," one of them said.
Somers, who spoke just before Bedi, said that young people in India thanks to its youthful democracy are rising. Indian youth today want better governance and you will hear a little bit about it from Mrs Bedi. The youth want progress and they want opportunity. Here is what I think is the glimmer of hope. The days of simple populist politics or caste politics in India are behind us, not completely but we are moving way beyond into another sphere. The point is that if a chief minister is elected today as the Samajwadi Party's Akhiesh Yadav by a massive majority, it is an extraordinary change. In other words it is not good enough anymore to build statues to yourself," he said alluding to former Chief Minister Mayavati.
"You are going to be voted out of power very soon," Somers who had a telephonic conversation with Akhilesh Yadav, who wanted to now how best to attract US investment in Uttar Pradesh, said."Gone are the days in India when you can poke the communal issues and hope to be in power for ever. The youth are beginning to be awakened," he said.