When Anand Mahindra, that savvy, aggressive yet modest face of India Inc, walked into the Jacaranda room at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai, there was a momentary silence among the eclectic group gathered there. His entry marked our readiness to brace ourselves to meet US President Barack Obama — the reason we were sequestered in the room by the US Secret Service.
We were going to be the first group to interact closed-door with the president. The format was that of freewheeling engagement in a closed room with 20 of us, mostly from the social sector. The interface was so designed that Obama would be engaged in a question-and-answer session with Mahindra (seated next to him), facing us seated in the front. It was as though we were observers on a Board. Or, more appropriately, witnesses to history being created.
A burly American with earphones, bluetooth and walkie talkie took over and announced the imminent arrival of the president in five minutes. We were to remain seated and observe protocol like not trying to touch, photograph or come in the way of the president in any manner that provoked his security. I glanced at the group of 'achievers'. Most of them were US returned, some US passport holders, a few Ivy League alumni, almost all successful and prominent faces of an ambitious, resurgent India.
The lights were turned on and scores of international press photographers started jostling for space. As a slim, smiling, charismatic Obama walked in, the wows and sighs were drowned out by the sound of cameras clicking. Obama outlined his mission to learn from us and embrace our ideas for fostering a stronger India-US partnership. He also offered to take up the challenges we faced, especially if they were related to bilateral trade policies.
Each of us were given a few minutes to speak. Mahindra laid down his plan of marrying Indian consumer behaviour, urban lifestyle and mindset with US technology to redefine public transport in India through the use of electric vehicles. An intense listener, Obama was very excited. The few other ideas that were floated included using solar energy to replace diesel/fossil fuel to run mobile towers and innovating delivery and pricing of technology for industrial water treatment now used for rural household drinking water application.
Towards the end, Obama brushed protocol aside to interact on a one-to-one basis with the group. The majority in the group went berserk. A Harvard alumnus pleaded with Obama to autograph his daughter's photo, mobile and digital cameras were thrust in the air and some of us jostled and elbowed the president to the chagrin of his security personnel. A few were speechless, giggling and blushing as if on a dream date with a celebrity. Gandhiji's autobiography, Obama's Audacity of Hope, scrap books, moleskin dairies — all were thrust into his face for the southpaw to scribble his signature. A certain pink-haired (hare-brained perhaps for those 90 minutes) lady let her phone ring aloud till Obama joked about the caller having to wait given that she was standing up every now and then to take multiple pictures with multiple cameras and proferring two books to be signed .
Thankfully, there were a few words of sagacity and hope in the cacophony of sounds — voices that spoke about new ideas for collaboration, inclusive growth and reduction of the widening gulf between rich and poor. We could teach the American kids maths and English in schools so that they wont be Bangalored or Shanghaied when they grow up, I said. What was heartening was that Obama repeatedly kept harking back to the ideas of EVs, solar energy and filtration technology in all his speeches thereafter during the tour. What an idea, Sirji.
Manoj Kumar is CEO, Kallam Anji Reddy chair, Naandi Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal.