February 16, 2012

Can SRK compensate for Mamata's inaction in Bengal?

Kanika Datta

So actor Shah Rukh Khan is going to be the brand ambassador for West Bengal — that too gratis because, he says, he “feels for the state” which has become his “second home”. How sweet of him.

The question that Bengalis might want to ask is this. Is a fading star, producer of serial flops and owner of the money-guzzling Indian Premier League cricket team Kolkata Knight Riders the right fit for marketing a bankrupt state suffering the pangs of slow economic growth?

It is possible that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is said to have requested Mr Khan, or SRK for short, to promote the state at the Kolkata Film Festival in November last year, did not consider this downside. She is, of course, reacting competitively, though belatedly, to Gujarat’s appointment of Bollywood supernova Amitabh Bachchan as its brand ambassador in 2010.

Gujarat figures as rival number two in Ms Banerjee’s unique world view (number one will always be the Communist Party of India). It’s nothing to do with Narendra Modi’s politics (her party was, after all, a BJP ally at the Centre not so long ago) but more a reflection of her chagrin after industrialist Ratan Tata exited her state to universal sympathy, taking his car project to Gujarat and publicly snubbing Ms Banerjee.

So what exactly is SRK going to do for West Bengal on an honorary basis? He’s going to promote tourism in the state, apparently. State Tourism Minister Rachpal Singh thinks the star can “tap into the foreign market”. This is not such a far-fetched ambition, since SRK still has a respectably large NRI fan base and extensive overseas contacts courtesy his film production and marketing company Red Chillies.

Also, he’s working with some potential here. According to tourism ministry data, West Bengal weighs in at number six in terms of the number of foreign tourists visiting it, behind Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan and, yes, ahead of even Goa. Note that Gujarat does not figure here — and it comes in a notch behind West Bengal in terms of number of domestic tourist visits.

Anyone who has been to Bengal will not be surprised by these facts. It has all the basics for a roaring tourism business — a wide variety of historical, cultural and ecological tourism on offer and an engaging ambience. Unlike Gujarat, the state has long been free of the kind of communal tensions that could vitiate the atmosphere and the security milieu. That’s an achievement that goes to the credit of the Left Front as much as Ms Banerjee’s own staunchly non-communal politics — and it probably says something that she has chosen a Muslim star to promote her state whereas Gujarat has opted for a megastar whose Hindu religion is publicly on display on family occasions.

But there is one critical point that Ms Banerjee and tourism minister Mr Singh might want to consider before they splurge on an ad campaign and SRK gets down to business. West Bengal right now is mostly a budget destination. This is not an undesirable thing but is unlikely to bulk up the state’s coffers as much as high-end tourism can and this, surely, is the objective of retaining SRK’s services.

High net worth tourists demand a level of luxury that West Bengal is not yet geared for — whether it is fleets of high-end luxury cars, yachts and boats, the ability to handle private jets and even seven-star hotels. Is the state ready to pour in investments or create an enabling environment to attract rich NRIs and foreign tourists?

There are several reasons for doubt on this score. Achieving this metamorphosis will require Ms Banerjee’s government releasing resources, specifically land, power, water, at a greatly accelerated pace. Given the dismay that industrialists have expressed at the lack of progress on their projects since she took power, there is nothing to suggest that this transformation is likely to occur anytime soon.

To be fair, Ms Banerjee has history against her. After all, her predecessors Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya were active overseas sales agents for their state. None of this amounted to much. In fact, the earliest reality check came in the tourism business in a failed attempt to privatise the storied Great Eastern Hotel. It took nearly a decade to finally sell the troubled hotel.

So SRK may, like Mr Bachchan in Gujarat, enjoy a fine holiday at the state’s expense shooting at prime tourist locations. But whether the state is ready to back this hard sell with action on the ground is another question altogether.