I have returned to the sub-zero temperatures of Davos after four years, for the launch of my book, Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India. The launch celebrates India’s Republic Day at Davos with Indians and India lovers, who this year are aplenty. The earlier three times that I was in Davos, I was organising the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, as an employee of the organisation. Never before have I seen India more prominent here than it is today.
My day today started with a yoga session on magic mountain, as Davos is fondly called. Next up was Indian cuisine for breakfast on Promenadestrasse, at Cafe Schneider that has been rechristened as India Hub — a pop-up lounge space showcasing Indian culture and promoting business with India. The 100-member strong Indian business delegation to Davos have nearly all arrived as well. They are upbeat, mingling with the 3,000 world leaders across sectors who are slowly trickling in on the first day of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the plenary emphasising the need to fight climate change, terrorism, protectionism. The prime minister echoed Mahatma Gandhi: “I don’t want the doors and windows of my house to be closed. I want multinational ideas and cultures to flow in. But I don’t want them to uproot me.”
At the time that I was working at the World Economic Forum, we faced a daunting task — how to entice the newly elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to come to Davos. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had wanted to participate in this gathering of world leaders but he had not been extended the invitation. This incident had soured relations between Modi and the Forum. For three years, several trips by the Forum’s staff to the PMO and their attempts to get a meeting with the PM led to nowhere. Great efforts by the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, to organise a meeting with the Indian prime minister also proved futile. But the professor had persisted. Around the same time, a change of leadership for regional strategy for South Asia at the World Economic Forum had brought in Viraj Mehta to the helm of affairs. Mehta had started his career at the Forum and had risen up the ranks. Hard working, reticent, and tactful, he has been the key person who along with his team changed PM Modi’s mind.
The timing of Modi’s acquiescence to participate is apt. India has recently been upgraded in its credit rating by Moody’s, it has jumped 30 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, and has received its highest-ever ranking of 40 out of 137 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. India’s foreign exchange reserves too have reached a new record of $411 billion. India received over $60 billion as foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2016-17, the fourth year of consistent growth. However, this amount of FDI is still too little compared to twice that amount regularly going to China. Will the PM shop for investments in Davos? What does India gain from its PM’s big ticket show at the WEF?
Davos is not a place to sign deals. Here, exceptional people meet on the sidelines of the official programmes. They meet officially in “bilateral” rooms, or irreverently at the smoothie bar, umpteen lounges, queues to the cloak room, and other nooks and corners of the Congress Centre — a rather elaborate temporary structure built up each year for the Annual Meeting — or in the shuttle vans running across the various meeting venues. These people make plans together for the evening, coordinating for the various “nightcaps” that flow well in to the early hours of the next day. After four days (and nights) of intense interactions, when participants leave the magic mountain, they promise to keep in touch. Any deals, agreements, partnerships, friendships follow only later.
So, this is what India will take back from Davos this year: First, PM Modi and his delegation would have displayed, in a congenial and liberal environment, how far Indians have come, and perhaps reminded the others of the scale of opportunity for investments in India. Positive private interactions at Davos are more valuable to collaborations than the work of archaic industry lobbies such as the CII. The PM enunciating a positive narrative about India will pave the way for powerful potential friendships and collaborations between members of this eclectic congregation.
Second, arriving in Davos soon after the recent US government shutdown, the US President will not steal Modi’s thunder. On the Forum’s website, Mehta has written that India, the largest democracy, and the US, the oldest democracy, will together show Davos participants how to build bridges in a fractured world. But this seems unlikely, given Donald Trump’s unilateral moves. In his speech at Davos, PM Modi said, “Democracy is the answer to India’s development”. This is the image of India that the leaders of the world will take back with them home, while India takes with her their goodwill.
Despite the presence of NGOs, academics, and the youth, Davos has a distinct elitist appeal. But, Prime Minister Modi’s willingness to put behind him his personal grudges, brush aside the risk of coming across as pandering to the elites, and his choice to embrace the opportunity to showcase India at Davos, highlights his commitment to leave no stone unturned in bringing India to the world. In Davos, Modi showed that he clearly holds India’s best interest first. This is the confidence from the Indian political leadership that the international community across all sectors has been yearning to see, from which Indian business will reap benefits.
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