It was in 2003 when I went to Davos. The only time I ever went there as entry to the meetings at Davos every year is by invitation only. I was not invited then too but my Minister, Arun Shourie, then in charge of Commerce, was an invitee. A luncheon meeting of select Ministers on the Doha work programme of the World Trade Organisation at Geneva was also scheduled amongst the scores of events that take place in this little village on the mountaintop, which shot into prominence when it became a meeting place of top businessmen initially and then later, brought within its fold,the mightiest in the world.
Many considered Shourie a difficult Minister. He had an infinite capacity to go into excruciating detail and had no patience or time for fools or ill-prepared officials. Since I too, had the same weakness for detail, I found it easy to deal with him. In fact, even today, he is one political leader with whom I maintain contact. Not just for his ministerial skills, but as a good human being.
I was then Ambassador to the WTO, resident in Geneva. As I recall, the drive from Geneva to Davos took about 4 hours. My meeting with the minister was at 6, so I started from my office in the afternoon. The Indian Ambassador to Switzerland was already in Davos, taking care of the Minister. As we approached Davos and began climbing uphill, traffic slowed down and it took me longer than expected to negotiate the winding roads up the mountain slope. My friend and colleague, the Bern based Indian Ambassador to Switzerland was getting increasingly agitated and restless as we approached the scheduled time for the meeting. Every minute or two, he would keep telephoning me. I told him that I can reach there only when I get to Davos and there was no point getting excited about it. I had met Shourie before and I knew the kind of person he was.
Finally, when I reached his hotel after checking into my little cubbyhole in a nondescript hotel, the minister himself came out to receive me with a broad smile on his face. When we went into his room, I told him,” Sir, forgive me but first I need a cup of tea. I am bushed.” The minister said, “Of course, immediately” and placed an order with room service. My colleague from Bern was aghast at my presumptuous behaviour. Totally undiplomatic. Lese majeste of a kind unknown in the Foreign Service. But, then, I didn’t belong to the Foreign Service. I belonged to the Administrative Service, where we find it easier to manage things speaking frankly, sometimes even bluntly. Even with Ministers. And, later in my life, even with the Prime Minister. In fact, I believe that one of the failings of the system today is that officials are afraid to tell the truth and the facts to the political executive. Instead, they prefer to tell them what they want to hear, which, in most cases, is far from the truth and leads to incorrect policy making.
As usual, Shourie grilled me relentlessly. His thirst for information and knowledge was insatiable. Older readers would probably still remember the painstaking manner in which he, along with Chitra Subramaniam in Geneva, unravelled every facet of the Bofors purchase. Perhaps they went into too much detail and got diverted into not so reliable bylanes which made the deal look larger and more suspicious than it actually was. Still, this was one of the main factors underlying the collapse of the government formed with the biggest parliamentary majority India has ever seen, before and since. Those who read Shourie’s books would know that he has the mind of a meticulous researcher. Even his recent petitions to the Supreme Court on the Rafale case display his immense capacity to study issues in minute detail.
The luncheon meeting passed off uneventfully. All the ministers reiterated their known positions. I spent a couple of days in Davos and thus could see for myself what Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, had done to convert this annual meeting at Davos into the most significant event in the global economic and business calendar, attendance at which is itself proof of having “arrived” on the same stage as the great and powerful. I knew Schwab slightly. He would have been happy if some progress had been made at Davos on the Doha work programme, but he realised quickly enough that a great deal of distance had to be covered to bring countries together. Over the years, the Doha work programme floundered and has now wound up altogether and the WTO, in my time the most vibrant and energetic of multilateral organisations, is virtually moribund with Trump even questioning its raison d’etre. At any rate, it’s much acclaimed dispute settlement system, which kept trade rules in place by exercising its power to punish transgressions, is now in tatters. Trump’s government, which believes that as the most powerful country in the world, the US has the right to do whatever it wants, refused to fill a key position in the appellate body so that no appeals can be heard or disposed off, thus making the whole system defunct.
The WTO has receded into virtual oblivion, but Davos still maintains its position of preeminence. Schwab was a professor of business policy at the University of Geneva from 1972 to 2002. In 1971, he founded the European Management Forum, which metamorphosed in 1987 into the World Economic Forum (WEF). From 1979, he has been publishing the Global Competitiveness Report, a far more comprehensive document, based on many more parameters than the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business. The WEF commits itself to “improving the state of the world through public-private cooperation, to shape global, regional and industry agendas” and to “define challenges, solutions and actions.” Essentially, the Davos meeting is for the very rich and the very powerful from all parts of the world, often called the “mafiocracy - bankers, industrial magnates, business tycoons, political leaders. The free market and the capitalist philosophy are the foundations on which WEF, Davos and the many meetings that are hosted in the name of WEF, both regionally and in major countries, rest. In 1997, the US political scientist, Samuel Huntington came out with the expression “Davos Man”, symbolising powerful individuals who “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that are thankfully vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.”
Many significant events have taken place in Davos, many ingrained thought processes have changed. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he vowed to nationalise mines, banks and monopoly industries. A discussion with Chinese and Vietnamese leaders at Davos in 1992 changed his mind and he became a votary of globalisation and capitalism. In 1988, a Davos Declaration was signed by Greece and Turkey, thus avoiding a possible war. In 1994, the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, signed a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho. In 1996, a group of seven Russian oligarchs banded together at Davos to support heavily the re-election of Putin in Russia to keep at bay a possible Left revival. In 2009, at a discussion in Davos moderated by the writer, Ignatius, there was a heated exchange of words between the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, and the Israeli President Shimon Peres, in the presence of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon and Arab League Secretary General Moussa.
A club exclusively for the elite would naturally raise the hackles of a vast section of civil society. Davos has come to be named the “NGO of the status quo” and the meeting of “fat cats in the snow”.
In January 2003, there were widespread demonstrations against WEF in Switzerland.The elite know that wealth and influence peddling would necessarily invite attacks and criticism. The response of WEF was to try and incorporate civil society in the meetings at Davos. As Schwab explained, while the meeting was about heads of state and big corporations,”it’s also about civil society - so all of the heads of the major NGOs are at the table” and, as a reaction to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, “We also try to put more emphasis on integrating the youth into what we are doing.” The WEF also chooses for each event, themes based on issues that could threaten and destabilise the status quo. Even where governments squabble on issues like environment, big corporations discuss them on the icy heights of Davos and prepare themselves for the changes that they would willynilly have to make sometime or the other.
The “fat cats” can read well the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup and prepare themselves for the future and Davos is their accepted venue for collective thinking and strategising. Governments will gradually become more and more irrelevant.
The facts and views written in the article are those of the writer.