Time does not have time for time at Davos. Almost every business person or political leader who attends the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) summit at the Swiss ski village has a diary overflowing with meetings, some set a year ago. Every year, a global leader addresses the plenary session. In a few hours from now, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will deliver the plenary address. Many people I have spoken to, including seasoned Davos hands say they want to see and hear the Indian Prime Minister in person more than anything he plans to say about India. Most CEOs are wired to sound and have facts on their fingertips when it comes to India which is one of a handful of economies that is growing.
A year ago, Davos was abuzz with the election of American President Donald Trump, with people not quite knowing if they should congratulate or commiserate each other at this free-market watering hole. Chinese President Xi Jinping, sensing the opening, grabbed the occasion and showcased China’s formidable credentials and called out isolationists – an open criticism of Trump’s America. Nobody squirmed. Money goes where money feels safe. The irony however was complete. This time around, Narendra Modi brings with him the ambitions and aspirations of over a billion Indians eager to claim their place in the sun roughly translated as jobs. Will he succeed in enthusing the uninitiated and quell fears of the cynics? Nobody knows and none can predict.
Business leaders’ expectations from Narendra Modi are not the same as their wish list from Donald Trump or Xi Jinping for obvious reasons. Women and men who run billion-dollar global empires are curious to see in person a man who has managed to place India on the world map without the country being either a military or economic power. He brings with him the power of the world's potentially largest free market, but will India be able to quickly turn that potential into prosperity? There is healthy curiosity about him and as he said in an interview recently, people want to hear about India’s ambitions and its growth trajectory from the horse’s mouth.
The 2018 theme at Davos is about living, connecting and growing in a fractured world. Themes have little significance in a world that is being tested at every twist and turn and survival for billions is at stake. Terrorism will most likely be a subject the Prime Minister will address. Beyond that, what do CEOs want to hear? As someone who has been to Davos more often than I can remember, here’s what business people want to hear. They want to hear from the horse’s mouth that their investments will be safe in India and not subject to red tape and whims and fancies of bureaucrats. Not every company has deep pockets and many have burnt their fingers and beat a hasty retreat. They want to hear that projects will not be stalled because of change of government or policy or both at the national and state level. They want to know how corruption will be curtailed and not passed off as escalation costs padded elsewhere. They want to be assured that the person steering the ship called India knows what he is talking about. Above all, people want to know if the Narendra Modi team has the bandwidth to deliver on promises made to global investors.
That last is an important calculation and it is not an easy one to either commit to or dismiss in a forum like Davos. The summit is not about announcements. It is about the buoyancy and robustness of processes that networks can profile. Despite promises of ease of doing business in India and the role of institutions therein including financial institutions, India is not an easy market to crack. People also know that 2018 is a year of critical assembly elections for India and the Prime Minister will most likely be the chief campaigner. The following year in 2019 are the Lok Sabha elections. Commitment, continuity and capacity are critical for businesses to thrive. Beyond the hashtags and tweets, it will be important to see how Narendra Modi’s words at Davos are received, heard and perceived in the months to come.
(Note: Views expressed are the personal opinions of the author.)