The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit has become such an Indian institution that it is sometimes difficult to remember how outlandish the ambition behind the summit seemed when it was first planned.
The idea then was to create a global gathering on par with any similar gathering held anywhere in the world. It would be attended by prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers, finance ministers, captains of industry, and leaders in such fields as entertainment, sport and literature.
While such people often give speeches at meetings, rarely do they speak frankly to an audience of their peers and agree to answer searching questions about their records in office and their plans.
The first challenge was to get India’s leaders on board. Once the idea behind the summit was explained to them, they seemed surprisingly willing to come and speak honestly to an invited audience.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister when the first summit was held. He came and spoke and returned every year when he was in office. His successor Manmohan Singh has attended every single year that he has been at Race Course Road. Sonia Gandhi was leader of the opposition during the first summit and was regarded as an enigmatic figure. She surprised many summit delegates with her openness and candour and answered questions from the audience with rare honesty.
Once the biggies were on board, the rest of the political establishment quickly fell into place. It is hard to think of a single significant India leader who has not addressed the summit. Since its launch, the summit has hosted every single Indian finance minister and most senior cabinet figures. The opposition — the Congress to begin with and the BJP now — has also been well represented, all the way from Sonia Gandhi to LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley.
The bigger challenge was to persuade world leaders to come and talk honestly to Indian audiences. To our surprise — and perhaps because of the increasing global importance of India — the summit has managed to get an astonishing array of prime ministers and presidents, both serving and ex.
Every British prime minister in the last 15 years has come to the summit after stepping down to discuss his record in office and the global scenario (Gordon Brown makes his first trip to India after stepping down for this year’s summit). Last year George Bush spoke and defended his record on Iraq in the face of frank questioning from the audience.
Serving heads of state have been as willing to discuss their policies — Saarc leaders have frequently used the summit to make a point — and foreign and finance ministers have mingled easily with our delegates.
In the process, the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit has become the pre-eminent power gathering in this region. Integral to its appeal is that you cannot buy your way in. There are no tickets. Every guest has to be invited and invitations are hard to come by.
Consequently, the audience is often as distinguished as those on the dais. The high level of attendance means that this is a meeting of equals. Some of the most powerful and important people of the world submit themselves to questions from those who understand the world as well as they do themselves. This leads to a level of discourse that has been unequalled in the history of Indian public life.
Fortunately, most sessions are televised. TV viewers (and those who log on to hindustantimes.com) can see what is happening in real time. Very rarely do world leaders refuse to have their words reach a wider audience. (George Bush, last year, was an exception. His speech was televised but the feisty question and answer session remained restricted to delegates).
This year’s summit maintains the high standard of its predecessors. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, fresh from the triumphant Obama visit, will outline his vision for India. Gordon Brown will talk about his role in facing the global financial crisis. Al Gore will discuss the challenge to the environment. The Dalai Lama will deliver his own unique message. Pranab Mukherjee will answer questions on the direction of the economy. Arun Jaitley and Brinda Karat will discuss the nature of opposition.
There will be more. Jairam Ramesh will discuss working out the balance between the environment and development with Sunita Narain. Kapil Sibal and Chas Edelstein will debate the trade-off between quality and quantity in education. Nandan Nilekani and Shashi Ruia will talk about India’s prospects in the globalised economy. And on a lighter note, two generations of Kapoors, Rishi and Ranbir, will give us an insight into India’s most enduring entertainment dynasty.
That’s not all. There will also be sessions on health, ideas, the rise of China and much more.
As always, these speakers will only tell half the story. The other half will come from the delegates, from the best and the brightest who will question, debate, argue and discuss the issues with them.
Because the HT Summit is only partly about big names. It is primarily about ideas, about issues and about providing an insight into our world and the people who run it.