The Davos hangover

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Jan 13 2013, 08:10am hrs
There was a time when having a Davos hangover was something to celebrate. Basically, it meant that, despite a desperate hunt for Alka Seltzers, you were a member of one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet, a global elite of wealthy, powerful men and women who gather every year at a tiny Alpine ski resort to attend the five-day gabfest called the World Economic Forum. In between the high-powered sessions, where politicians, business leaders, economists and sundry celebrities debate the burning topics of the day, there are invitation-only parties, musical events and grand balls hosted by giant corporations or individual countries where Champagne and caviar are secondary to the opportunity to network and exchange visiting cards with what one pink paper described as the Masters of the Universe.

Till recently, it was every businessmans dream destination. The late Samuel Huntington even coined a phrase; The Davos Man. Davos used to come way behind St Moritz, Gstaad or nearby Klosters as a place to enjoy an apres-ski evening. That changed, thanks to Klaus Schwab, the German economist who founded the World Economic Forum which, by the 1990s, had became a magnet for the rich and powerful. India came late to the Davos party, with barely a handful of businessmen like Rahul Bajaj, Anand Mahindra and Pawan Munjal being regulars for any length of time. It was in 2005, with economic reforms having added a turbo-charger to the Hindu rate of growth, that the Indian contingent at Davos acquired numbers and clout. Come the third week of January (this year, the dates are 23-27), and India Inc would pack their Louis Vuitton suitcases, Burberry overcoats, the more adventurous would add skis, and head for Zurich to negotiate the tricky climb through twisting, frozen, mountainous roads to Davos.

There, they would mingle with the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Al Gore, Bono, Paul Coelho, Angela Merkel, David Cameron, all regulars, along with an assortment of former and serving presidents and prime ministers, heads of global financial institutions, corporate fat cats, IT czars and the biggest collection of billionaires to be found anywhere on the planet. There was nothing more ego-boosting than to be in Davos, and mind you, there are lots of egos that get boosted during those five days with journalists having joined in the jamboree to capture the mood of the global power elite. Its actually quite comical to see a string of Indian tycoons slithering and sliding their way along the frozen streets while being interviewed outdoors, but thats a small price to pay for having the Davos ID badge hanging around your neck.

Till 2011, the Indian power list at Davos read like the annual Forbes rich list: Mukesh Ambani, Sunil and Lakshmi Mittal, Azim Premji, Kumar M Birla, Chanda Kochhar, the Munjals, Naina Lal Kidwai, the Ruia brothers, Naresh Goyal, Vijay Mallya, Uday Kotak, Malvinder Singh, Sanjiv Bajaj, Tulsi Tanti, Vineet Nayar, Yogi Deveshwar, Nandan Nilekani and Adi Godrej, to name the regulars. Kamal Nath, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Anand Sharma are regulars in the official delegation. In 2010, Indians at Davos numbered 95 and grew to 135 in 2011.

The biggest impact was, however, made in 2006 by Adis wife, Parmeshwar, along with Anand Mahindra and Nandan Nilekani when they were asked to plan the India Everywhere campaign at Davos, which included Bollywood-themed parties and a gift pack for every foreign delegate consisting of an Apple iPod preloaded with Indian contemporary music and a pashmina shawl for the women/wives.

The Davos moment is now starting to sour as the global economic slowdown and sorry-looking statistics back home reduce the Indian footprint. Mukesh Ambani dropped out in 2011 and he has been followed by a number of other businessmen for whom the Davos glitter is fading rapidly. In 2012, barely 50 Indians made it to the mountaintop. Davos has also gone cold on the India story. This years theme is Resilient Dynamism, and theres not much of that to go around. Davos has also been a victim of its own elitism. What Davos representedmainly a cheerleader for globalisationhas now boomeranged. Businessmen may extol free market liberalism but politicians all over are retreating into parochial, socialist and populist bunkers.

Heres the last word on the Davos dream turning sour. Every year, there are two must go-to parties. The Google party in the Belvdre hotel and the McKinsey party the night before. This year, for the first time, Google has cancelled its big bash, a sign that even hugely profitable multinationals are catching the Davos chill. Still, the elite do need a place to gather and pretend they control the levers of power but India is no longer part of the equation or even hyphenated to China. The Indian presence at Davos next week will be very subdued, a reflection of the India story having passed its sell-by date.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express