Aiyar sitting next to human-turned-Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari sporting a crepe bandage on his right arm. Two tables away, there was Ravi Shankar Prasad, the only visible BJP presence apart from the mysterious man behind the jalebi counter. Also in the front row were author-management yogi Sri Sri Gurchuran Das and the Obi Wan Kenobi-like Kiran Karnik. There were many other worthies in the Network 18-covered durbar who had no clue that I had no idea who they were.
Considering that the book's about the amazing race between China's hare and India's tortoise (its subtitle), I was expecting a larger Chinese contingent. But it was overwhelmingly Indian tortoises and firangi turtles and only a small smattering of Chinese rabbits. Kamal Nath made a late entry — well, not late, considering the show, slated at 6.30, was waiting for him and started an hour later — and sat next to former RBI boss Bimal Jalan, while Nandan Nilekani claimed the unique identity of becoming Kamal Nath's 'left hand man' at the table and 'right hand man' on the stage for the evening.
At 7.30 and after a preparatory whisky down, I expected the lights to dim and a pole with a dancer to appear in front of the neon-lit figures of, yes, a hare and a tortoise. Instead, Shereen Bhan of Network 18 went on to introduce author Raghav Bahl, founder-editor of Network 18 and her boss. And after Bahl's lecture, there was Sam ‘Tring! Tring!' Pitroda, the Che Guevara of India's 1980s telecom revolution, who, via a recorded message, seemed to have been woken up in the middle of the night to implore us to read the book. His eyes shifting, Pitroda held the book towards the camera looking like a late-night telemarketer selling a (made in China?) sauna tub.
As the panel of experts — and the author — chugged on about whether slow economic growth is the 'price to be paid' for democracy, and former SEBI chief M. Damodaran questioned the need for a Planning Commission that Nilekani defended and Kamal Nath briefly raised his churidar-clad leg to, and Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta wondered why India has to benchmark itself with China when there are other countries ‘far ahead of us' like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Bimal Jalan lowered his lower lip further and gained my respect for saying things on a need-to-say basis.
It was left to Mani Shankar Aiyar to take the mike and the mickey out of the ongoing jaw-jaw. Aiyar was trenchant about how everyone on the stage seemed to be only concerned about "how many miles of roads have been laid to make the journey to office quicker" and the GDP tickertape being strewn around while, like a schoolboy in the loo, India keeps measuring its prowess against a Chinese standard.
The best line of the day came from the dial-a-blasphemy Aiyar: "All of you on the stage would have been the first ones to be shot if this was China. The only difference is that they bury ordinary people six feet under; they'd bury Network 18 18 feet under." The crowd, sensing a little boy in their midst pointing to the emperor and crying out, ‘Look, he's not wearing any clothes!' applauded, while really applauding their own inner-anti-establishmentness buried deep inside their own clothes.
The crowd, smarter than pretty and prettier than real, were happy that, even if for an hour-and-a-half, they were part of a set that knows its democracy from its GDP and its elbow from its bottom. For me, the highlight of the evening was the dinner — a mixed buffet of Indian and Chinese fare. I had chicken in xo sauce with white rice, topped off by three gorgefuls of jalebis served by a mysterious man who seemed embarrassed by the whole evening's proceedings.