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A K Bhattacharya: The decline of Davos?

India's big guns have stayed home this year. How can the WEF's annual meeting stay relevant?

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

Davos, it appears, has ceased to excite India the way it used to do even a couple of years ago. The ongoing annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which concludes today at the Swiss ski resort, has only one Cabinet minister-level participant from India in Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma.

A news conference held in New Delhi last Friday said it all. The conference was addressed by Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and Unique Identification Authority Chairman Nandan Nilekani. All of them, until a few years ago, would be in Davos at this time of the year — flitting from one meeting room to the other, waxing eloquent on reforms, sustainable growth and the “India Rising” story. Mr Nilekani of course would be the star attraction of the Indian delegation in Davos, though wearing a corporate hat as Infosys’ head honcho.

In sharp contrast this year, all the three are enjoying New Delhi’s sunny winter and talking about as down-to-earth an issue as giving an identity to each and every Indian resident. In their place, it is Anand Sharma who is in Davos, along with a couple of ministers of state. Going by one report, Mr Sharma was busy meeting his Canadian counterpart and a few global retail giants last Friday, presumably convincing them that the Indian government will soon liberalise the policy on foreign investment in multi-brand retail.

What about India Inc? Yes, most of the usual suspects are in Davos. You have Yogi Deveshwar, Adi Godrej, Ajit Gulabchand, Sunil Mittal and of course Azim Premji. But pause for a moment and reflect on the issues they are touching upon, at least while talking to the media. Mr Deveshwar is heard talking about problems of acquiring land in India to implement the mega projects his company has lined up. Mr Mittal is bemoaning the manner in which the Indian government has sucked the telecom industry dry, by pocketing huge amounts of fees through the 3G auctions, forcing the industry to think of tariff increases. In short, he has announced that the telecom story in India is almost over. Mr Premji has talked about corruption and the need for improving productivity of agriculture in India. In other words, India Inc is talking about India and its problems of doing business in India even while in Davos.

One may argue that this is not a fair and balanced view. There is a lot more that India Inc and the few ministerial representatives from the Union government are doing in Davos. Of course, they are. At the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, hundreds of intellectually invigorating sessions on global economic, political, social and cultural issues are held during the five-day jamboree, and attending even any one of them is always a rich and rewarding experience. More importantly, networking with global leaders from Europe and the US is one of the key items on the agenda of each of India's delegates. This can build relationships between companies and governments, which are becoming increasingly important in an inter-dependent and globalised world. That is how the Davos annual jamboree over the years has become an important fixture in the calendar of any global leader — whether in business or in government.

Both factors — the brainstorming meetings, workshops and plenary sessions on the one hand and the networking opportunities on the other — continue to be the major reason why Davos manages to draw hundreds of leaders from across the globe in the last week of January every year. Going by the rising level of participation from all over the world, and the financial success that the Annual Meeting continues to ensure for Klaus Schwab who runs the Forum, Davos should continue to remain important.

Yet, there are now serious doubts over the continued relevance of the Annual Meeting for large sections of the world, particularly in emerging economies — including India. Such doubts have only risen over the last couple of years, as the Davos agenda is now increasingly focused on the deepening economic crisis in the developed world in general and in Europe in particular.

If Davos has ceased to excite India, the Forum’s preoccupation with Europe and its crisis is certainly one of the reasons. What room can India secure for itself at an annual meeting where Europe's crisis is on every delegate’s lips? Also, remember that Davos has traditionally celebrated only success stories as far as the emerging world is concerned. If the Indian economic reforms of the 1990s yielded rich dividends for the economy, giving it steady growth, Davos gave India a premium positioning in several of its annual meetings in the last decade. Similarly, China has received a red-carpet welcome because of its sustained robust growth. Take the country’s performance and its potential out, and Davos may no longer be interested in an emerging economy.

Even this year, the theme of the Annual Meeting is “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models”, but underlying it is the concern that every participant at Davos shares on account of the global economic crisis that does not seem to go away. Even as the emerging economies have clearly weathered the economic storm of the last four years much more resiliently, the Davos agenda has failed to capture that change in global realities. It could well be argued that the Davos agenda has yet to recognise the role that ideally should be conferred on the emerging world by making it the central point in a debate over what should be the appropriate policy response to a global crisis of this magnitude.

Not recognising that now could be a costly mistake for those who manage the Annual Meeting at Davos. If indeed the emerging world is estimated to account for 70 per cent of the global economic growth in the next three to four years, out of which China and India will account for 40 per cent, and the Forum continues to remain as overwhelmingly focused on the developed world including crisis-ridden Europe (as it is now), the relevance of Davos may soon decline considerably. Its organisers should perhaps think of ways of engaging more with the developing world, instead of remaining focused only on Europe.

A change of venue for the annual meetings can make a difference, forcing a shift in the Forum's orientation in view of a more varied mix of participating delegates. If it could shift its annual meeting to New York in 2002, months after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US, it would also make equally eminent sense to hold its annual meetings in different cities in the emerging world, perhaps every alternate year — taking a leaf out of the World Bank, which too holds its annual spring meetings in different member countries every alternate year.

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First Published: Sun, January 29 2012. 00:20 IST