There is nothing in India quite like the HT Summit. You can’t just walk in. You can’t buy a ticket — no amount of money will allow you to gain entry. But if you do get in, you can hear the world’s most powerful people try and persuade you of their point of view. You can take issue with them. You can challenge their perspectives and give them some of your own. And because you are a guest at the HT Summit, they will engage with you on equal terms.
One of the reasons why the HT Summit is an eagerly awaited global event is because the audience, composed entirely of invitees, is drawn from the powerful and the best and the brightest. The man sitting next to you may be Rahul Gandhi. The guy who gets up to ask a question could be our next foreign minister. The articulate man who challenges a speaker’s prognosis for the Indian economy could well be the former finance secretary.
Because there is as much power — brain power as well as real power — in the audience as there is on the stage, the Summit is a unique event; a rare opportunity for opinion-formers to clarify their views and a place where the seeds of policy changes are sown.
Central to the success of the Summit is that everybody speaks freely. Tony Blair discussed the differences in style between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Hamid Karzai admitted that while Pakistan was sending terrorists to his country, he knew that Islamabad was sensitive about anything he said about that on Indian soil. Sonia Gandhi explained why and when she decided not to accept the prime ministership. Manmohan Singh expressed his disappointment when it looked as though the nuclear deal would not go through. Nepal’s Prachanda made his first international appearance here.
Nor is this frankness restricted to politicians. Roger Moore said that he thought that Daniel Craig would be a better James Bond than him “because at least he is an actor which I never was”. Sania Mirza said she would decide her skirt length according to her own preferences not according to the demands of fundamentalists. Sanjay Dutt told us that his sisters had problems with his wife while Manyaata said Sanjay should join politics. Karan Johar described speculation about his friend Shah Rukh Khan’s sexuality as silly. Shah Rukh himself discussed the making of his six pack. Sourav Ganguly told us what he really thought of Greg Chappell.
Why do these people open up at the Summit?
Mainly because they realise that they must speak honestly and sensibly to an audience of this calibre. They know that the traditional lies and obfuscations will not work.
Because of this, the HT Summit offers a unique insight into the way the world is really run. It shows us what people really believe because they feel no need to pretend or evade. Madeline Albright told us that she thought that there should be a referendum in Kashmir — something she never declared openly when she was secretary of state. Henry Kissinger said that he did not think that India would ever get a Security Council veto even if it became a permanent member. Sonia Gandhi declared that as much as people ran down Indira Gandhi over bank nationalisation, the global economic crisis proved that Indira had been right all along. Asif Zardari offered a No First Use nuclear pact to India.
This year’s Summit has its roster of stars. The Prime Minister — the summit is always inaugurated by the PM of the day; first Atal Bihari Vajpayee and now Manmohan Singh — will set the ball rolling with an inaugural address on the first day. On the second day it will be George W. Bush who will explain the worldview behind his decisions. And there will be loads of others: Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee answering questions on the state of the economy; Sushma Swaraj telling us where the BJP goes from here; such cricketing legends as Richard Hadlee and Sunil Gavaskar discussing whether the game they played is now dead; and Saif and Kareena on stage together, telling it like it is.
At the HT, we will watch each session with keen interest, interview the speakers and tell you what really went on. And CNN-IBN will carry much of the Summit live.
So watch the world unfold before our eyes as the movers and shakers open their minds and their hearts.
Only at the Summit.
The author is HT’s Advisory Editorial Director