Business Today

Time for change

The World Economic Forum's showpiece event in India has to evolve in order to stay relevant.
twitter-logo Manu Kaushik        Print Edition: Dec 7, 2014
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the India Economic Summit 2014
Talking heads: Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (L) with WEF Founder Klaus Schwab at the summit in Delhi (Photo: Getty images)

What does it take to conduct a successful global economic event? First, it should bring together a significant number of high-profile business leaders from around the world under one roof for brainstorming sessions with the next generation of entrepreneurs. Second, the event should be able to put out big transformational ideas that will define the future.

The recently-concluded India Economic Summit did not have both. Not so long ago, business honchos, young entrepreneurs, policymakers, investors and academics flocked to the forum but all that appears to be a thing of the past now.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), the Geneva-based body best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, conducted the first-ever India Economic Summit in 1985 in association with industry body Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Over the years, the forum's popularity grew manifold but towards the end of the last decade the summit began to lose its sheen.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley outlined the economic agenda but refrained from making big policy announcements

The conference halls, packed earlier, began to wear a deserted look. Lacklustre discussions got lower participation from key decision-makers - both in the government and industry. A whole host of factors contributed to the waning popularity of the summit, including big names skipping the conferences, the global economic downturn, emergence of web conferences and the decision to move the forum out of New Delhi in 2011. Then, in 2012, the break-up with CII turned out to be another body blow. CII was an important partner because of its access to corporate and political leaders. However, the WEF partnered with CII again in 2014.

The timing of the event was perfect this year. The Indian industry is upbeat about the prospects of an economic recovery with the Narendra Modi-led government firmly in the saddle. However, the forum was still not able to attract marquee corporate names. The participation from the new government in the summit was also low this year. Finance minister Arun Jaitley outlined the economic agenda of the government but refrained from making big policy announcements that could spur fresh investments.

Some attribute the poor show at the summit to the downbeat global economic sentiments which resulted in the absence of several large global investors and CEOs at the summit. Richard Rekhy, a participant and CEO of consultancy and auditing firm KPMG India, says that about five to six years ago, a resurgent Indian economy was attracting global investors and MNCs. "Today, the global mood is also not good," he says. Concurs Ajit Gulabchand, Chairman and MD of construction giant HCC. "The past government has been so bad that people had stopped looking at India," he says.

Most participants agreed that big names from the industry and the government don't spend enough time at the summit. "Do they ever attend the whole event? They come for their session and go away," says a senior industry leader on the condition of anonymity. Ironically, Modi, who is criss-crossing the world to sell the India story, didn't take out time to attend the forum.

Experts argue that in today's integrated world where social media has overtaken all other forms of communication, such forums are losing their relevance. "People have different places to integrate and meet. Earlier, WEF was one place where all business leaders would meet. Today, there are various forums where business leaders meet so that cutting-edge is no more there," says an industry leader who attended the event.

Quote

"You cannot use the same format you were using in the past. The whole world has moved on"

RICHARD REKHY

CEO, KPMG India

Some participants, though, felt that some of the sessions at the Indian Economic Summit this year had meaningful discussions. "When a lot of senior people come, both from the government and the business community, it takes away attention from the debating sessions. I don't know whether that was the reason or the content was genuinely more meaningful this time," says Sunil Kant Munjal, Joint Managing Director at the country's largest two-wheeler maker Hero MotoCorp. This was the first time that Deep Kalra, the poster boy of India's online travel industry, and Founder and Group CEO of MakeMyTrip, attended the event. "I really don't know how the event used to be earlier but I found some of the sessions to be interesting," says Kalra.

But clearly, organisers of the event have to put on their thinking caps to revive interest in this crucial, once-in-a-year, forum. KMPG's Rekhy has a solution. "You cannot use the same format you were using in the past. The whole world has moved on. It is time to get more business leaders through video-conferencing and 3D imaging," he says.

Some continue to remain hopeful though. Adi Godrej, Chairman of the diversified Godrej Group, says that it is only a matter of time before the summit regains its popularity. "The size and scale of the forum may not be the same. About two years ago, the forum decided to hold its own meetings," he says, referring to the WEF's decision in 2012 to conduct the event on its own, as it does in several other countries. Last year, the forum touched its lowest point when the India edition was cancelled a few weeks prior to the scheduled date. "But they [WEF] realised that tying up with CII was important. Again, CII is a partner. From the next meeting onwards, it will be back to its original popularity," adds Godrej.

It remains to be seen when and how the once-revered India Economic Summit gets its mojo back.

(Additional reporting by Sarika Malhotra and Ajay Modi. Follow them on twitter @sarikamalhotra2 @ajaymodibt)

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