Sometimes my job gets somewhat interesting, normally in ways that don’t actually have bearing on what I am supposed to be doing. Case in point was annual conference organized by bank to which the press are invited to selected speeches. Attending these will not give me a story because we don’t cover this sort of everyday news stuff but generally listening to some of the high profile speakers will improve my mind. And sometimes I just like to listen to what intelligent people have to say for its own sake.
Also it was an excuse to get out of the office.
So, I put on my smart grey skirt (with frill at the bottom for flirty-good-measure), my new Mango top and very tall strappy sandals and head off to wow the bankers without looking too banky. Sometimes one does have to use the fact that one is a woman to one’s advantage and I generally like to show up bankers by not looking too banky.
Anyway, Wipro head Azim Premji was the keynote speaker. He was sort of dull. I don’t know why the heads of big corporations in India feel the need to sell the India story at these events as if its news to anybody. I’m sure everyone knows India’s booming (apparently) – rolling out a tonne of stats is not going to really interest anybody, you have to sell an angle, something new. Then, when the questions came nobody had anything to ask. I don’t know whether bankers have anxiety too about asking a stupid question. Finally, someone did. Anyway, I would think at such a senior level, really useful insightful questions would be asked. But the two questions to be asked were so mediocre.
So your truly goes – hmmm if it’s like that, why don’t I ask a question as well. So I did. Moi – little girl who knows barely anything about finance – asked a question at huuuge banking conference to head of NASDAQ listed firm. Hah!
Then we all troop out to attend next speech by Prime Minister of Pakistan. I have to admit I haven’t really seen many Pakistanis in person. It’s so odd but the boundaries are wider that one would think. Listening to a Pakistani speak is something of a curiosioty.
Anyway, the security is high – supposedly, because I just traipsed in without anyone properly checking my bag or ID and I was wondering if I would be targetted because I’m Indian. Not., but was targetted for being press. Was someone stunned to walk into conference room for luncheon session and just as I was about to sit my ass down at some table be rudely ordered to “sit in the press section” (honestly, Chinese hotel staff need to get a grip. I guess they are insulted at having to serve the likes of brown skins – and the number of them in the room was tremendous which means that a large number of senior bankers are now Indian sub-continent). The press section turned out to be a stage on which a few TV cameras had been arranged and behind that so close to the stage that you would have to be a midget to fit your legs in seated but very tall indeed to see anything from behind the cameras. I sit down on the very last seat so that I can leave easily and smile across to the only other person sitting down, who I realize only too late is a Pakistani security man who doesn’t smile back.
Even more shockingly, I am asked by the PR girl to leave the room ‘for security reasons’. Fortunately, I realize I am not the only one and that all the journos are being sheperded (to put it kindly out). So we find ourselves in a sad gang on the wrong side of the security devices sort of like pariahs and complete at a loss, wined and dined as we usually are.
For lack of anything better to do, one would think we would talk to each other. But strangely this is not entirely happening.
Schmoozy Indian editor from new agency is standing silently in a corner. Attempt at conversation with him results in the kind of stand offishness that I thought inflicted only unthinking Indians in HK (of the let-me-interract-anyone-but-my-own-kind so that I can become one of THEM). He is joined by another Indian girl from rival mag who is equally unfriendly while spouting non-stop opinions on everything in a loud voice. Even if she wasn’t being unfriendly, I think I would dislike her. End up talking to older Swede and Danish journos and come to the realization that the guys who are secure in themselves and their jobs don’t need to be snobby.
Finally, we are let into the room after encountering bumptious Pakistani press officer who hands out speeches, which makes us wonder whether we should stick around to actually hear it being read out. I’m so glad we did. Shaukat Aziz, who my boss knew when he was a banker at Citi in HK, is pure Wall Street. He sells the country like he is marketing a deal: We have no foreign equity caps, we are open for business, we are changing everything that has to be changed. It is exactly what a speech should be – it was a persuasive pitch for investments and it had even the bankers laughing. He managed to avoid any questions about the fact that Musharaf sacking the Chief Justice and riots at home, but then, the journos didn’t seem to even know that there were riots in Pak and seemed stuck on Woolmer’s death (even on that I am amazed at the Britishness of the responses: “Our guy mrudered by barbarous Pakis”).
The next day I head down to the event and realize I’m in a spot of trouble. I’ve forgotten my press badge. And for once, someone actually cares and it looks like they’re not going to let me in. The manager in the Shangri La is really nice though – he handles the situation perfectly, telling me I cannot go in, while trying his best to get me in. I of course am nice as well and don’t make a scene because I know he is only doing his job. Instead I begin to search for PR guy and hunt leads me to some back corridor where I am almost run over by P Chidambaram and his entourage (in sarees) going in for the speech that I am trying to get in to hear. God he looks like a caricature in real life!
Anyway thanks to my skirt and heels yesterday PR guy remembers me and darts out of greeting PC to press a badge into my hands and in I go. I am proud of PC. He has none of the entertainer characteristics of Shaukat Aziz. He is firm, he is quiet and he is exact with his numbers. Governments will change in India but liberalization is not. It will not because everyone now realizes that we need the money to develop to country. What I like is that he went beyond asking for investments to why he is asking for investments – we are going to be nice to you, the investor, because we need your money. We need your money because we still have a majority of the population under the poverty line. Yes, you will make money, but hey! you have buy a little goodwill as well. There are some that say PC is corrupt. Maybe, though not as corrupt as some others I would say. I am not against people skimming a bit of the till as long as they keep enough in there for the legitimate users. At the end of the day, politicians can make their money but they need to be at least thinking about feeding the millions of hungry people in India and PC seems to be approaching it like an intellectual. And for all the investment bankers out there, maybe he touched a little heart.