It was the third week of January circa 2008, that time of the year when heads of governments and industry top brass were headed to Davos for the annual jamboree. However, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy had a different engagement. He was headed to India on a state visit to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. However, there was a minor diplomatic hitch. He was to be accompanied by his then-partner Carla Bruni. The foreign office mandarins went on a tizzy about the status to be accorded to the visiting dignitary’s paramour. Can she be given the same honours as an official first lady? Precedents were hard to find. But trust diplomats to find a solution to the trickiest of issues. It was agreed between the two sides that although Mademoiselle Bruni will arrive with the President she will be on a private itinerary. A senior cabinet minister of the Manmohan Singh government was identified to be her host for the trip. But that posed another problem. The minister concerned was going to be away at Davos. For him, it was an annual pilgrimage not to be missed. The highest office was invoked to prevail over him. He finally agreed to fly down for a day on a chartered flight to receive the lady. However, much to his relief (or disappointment, it is hard to say), at the last-minute Carla Bruni decided to stay back, saving the Indian government from embarrassment. The minister who had by then landed in Delhi, reportedly, took an about turn on the tarmac and returned to Davos by the same aircraft. Such is the attraction – nay, importance – of the World Economic Forum (WEF) for whom it mattered.
There are many Indian industry leaders and politicians like the former minister mentioned in the anecdote for the annual WEF for whom Davos is a mandatory pit-stop. The credit for making Davos a permanent black-ink entry in their calendar goes to the late Rahul Bajaj, a close friend of Klaus Schwab, founder of WEF. Bajaj himself is said to have attended over forty annual meetings of WEF where he hosted a nightcap gathering at Belvedere Hotel, a place to be seen at. Every year more than a hundred Indian delegates sign up for the conference. Many among them are failed industrialists who come with their significant others flaunting Sable coats a la Carla Bruni. There were also the odd characters with dubious track records who caused some red faces by sneaking into select gatherings.
In recent years, a number of politicians and chief ministers have been turning up at the Swiss ski resort, ostensibly to woo investors to their states. This year, among others, Yogi Adityanath, Eknath Shinde and KT Rama Rao in addition to central ministers Smriti Irani and Ashwini Vaishnav are part of the list of politicians. However, whether anything tangible has been achieved – either at an individual or a collective level as a nation to establish India’s claim as an emerging economic power - beyond networking and photo-ops - is open for debate.
At the global level too the purpose, if any, served by this massive extravaganza in which dignitaries fly in over a thousand private jets has come in for criticism. Organisations like Greenpeace have repeatedly expressed cynicism over the apparent hypocrisy of world leaders attending the bash who seldom match their words with actions. Though a gathering of such a massive scale unfailingly produces many headlines and quotable quotes, not many of them stand the test of time proving yet again that the richest and the most powerful are not necessarily infallible.