Ignored by the big guns and sidetracked by the telecom minister’s resignation, a lacklustre WEF carried on, writes Shantanu Guha Ray
MINUTES INTO a discussion at the World Economic Forum (WEF), Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) non-executive chairman Harish Manwani argued that Indians must buy Surf Excel Quick Wash — a HUL product — because it helped save two buckets of water. A blue turbaned person sitting in the audience, on whom the television cameras almost instantly zoomed, did not join in the laughter. He was Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia who had, in fact, suggested emphatically that the water bill of Indians could soon go up many notches. “Water is a serious subject,” added Ahluwalia even as the moderator, an anchor from Deutsche Welle television, tried hard to balance tempers on the dais.
But the next day Delhi’s newspapers picked up Manwani’s comments, missing the more serious point elucidated by Ahluwalia. Earlier, in the opening plenary, the anchor failed to mention — let alone explain — the philosophy CK Prahalad, the noted Indian economist, in whose memory the session was held. No wonder then, a visibly disturbed Pawan Munjal, MD and CEO of the Hero Group, cryptically remarked when asked how his company would push all-encompassing growth: “By making two-wheelers.”
The Davos-based organisers, who had partnered with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), tried hard but could not — like in earlier times — get some of the big guns of Indian business to attend. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man with a global footprint, stayed away, as did Ratan Tata, head of India’s largest conglomerate with operations in over 80 countries. Tata made more news outside the WEF when he told a convocation ceremony how he was asked to pay a Rs.. 15 crore bribe to start an airline business in India. What further took the wind out of WEF’s sails was the resignation of telecom minister A Raja on charges of financial irregularities. Worse, virtually no discussions took place on large-scale mining, and those displaced by it — two of the most controversial issues plaguing India. Even debates on corporate transparency carefully skipped some of the most contentious issues in a country that ranks high on the corruption ladder.
The CII tried hard but could not — like in earlier times — get the big guns of Indian business to attend
“Discussions should be more serious in nature,” observed agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan. He had just chaired a session where controversial US seed giant Monsanto’s Executive Vice-President Jerry Steiner proudly claimed the biggest thing that had happened in Indian agriculture in the past one decade was the arrival of Bt cotton. “Forums like these are ways to expand business, but heads of companies should not push their personal agenda,” said Joseph Massey, CEO of Multi-Commodities Exchange (MCX).
He should know. Earlier in the day, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Omolo Odinga had said the WEF needed to drive economic development and business among the participating nations. He noted how New Delhi had, in recent times, been wary of pushing its investments in Africa. “Discussions must happen on forums as big as the WEF. Africa and India have historical links, and the latter has helped us grow. Many in Africa expect to do business with Indian companies, rather than accepting the European model that does not often fit into our system of working,” he explained.
Now, if only someone would set the agenda right.